Adjusting to Life in a Wheelchair After a Spinal Injury

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Adjusting to Life in a Wheelchair After a Spinal Injury

A severe spinal injury can be a life-changing event, altering the way you go about your daily life and forcing you to adapt to new challenges. One of the most significant changes may be the need to use a wheelchair or other mobility aids. This guide aims to offer practical advice and support on adjusting to life in a wheelchair, helping you to regain your independence and lead a fulfilling life.

Embrace the change

Coming to terms with your new reality can be difficult - sustaining a spinal injury can come with a sense of loss which is often accompanied by grief. Allowing yourself time to grieve and dealing with this grief actively can be an important part of coming to terms with life as a wheelchair user. 

One of the best things you can do is focus on what you can do rather than what is no longer possible. Letting go of the past can help you accept the present and look to the future with renewed hope. It may be helpful to think of your wheelchair as a tool that enables you to maintain your independence and mobility, rather than a hindrance. Recognise that it will take time to adjust to your new lifestyle, and be patient with yourself during this process.

Choose the right wheelchair

Selecting an appropriate wheelchair is crucial, as it will increase function and enable you to mobilise in the most efficient way possible. Doing so will also minimise the risk of further disability, such as soft tissue injury, muscle shortening or pressure ulcers. 

It is important to consider your lifestyle, level of injury and what you want to get out of your wheelchair when making this important decision. Electric wheelchairs can provide excellent levels of independence for those with higher level injuries, but they are usually more expensive, are bigger and heavier, and difficult to manoeuvre in tight spaces. Manual wheelchairs are usually cheaper, lighter and smaller, and are ideal for more active users. 

It is important to consider: 

  • Your living environment - what kind of wheelchair will you be comfortable using around the house? 
  • Your ability to propel a wheelchair, particularly over uneven or challenging terrain, up/down hills or across camber
  • If you are planning to drive, how will you get your wheelchair into the car? 

You could also look at combining a manual wheelchair with electric add-ons such as assistive wheels or electric front and/or rear attachments. 

Speaking with a specialist at your local NHS wheelchair services can be a really good place to start. They can recommend a type of wheelchair for you depending on your functional ability to manoeuvre it, your lifestyle and of course your personal wishes. 

It is also important to ensure you are sitting on the correct cushion. People with spinal injuries tend to be less able to move around and shift their weight when sitting. If you are sitting in your wheelchair for long periods, then you are at risk of pressure ulcers. Your local NHS wheelchair services will be able to ensure your cushion meets your specific needs and prevents you encountering any skin issues.

Learn to manoeuvre your wheelchair

Mastering the art of manoeuvring your wheelchair is essential in ensuring your independence and safety. To help with learning the proper techniques for pushing, turning, stopping, reversing, etc., consider taking a wheelchair skills course, which can provide hands-on training and guidance. 

The Back Up Trust holds regular wheelchair skills courses in spinal centres and general hospitals, as well as extra courses in ‘real world’ situations. Or, you can book one-to-one sessions with private providers such as Silver Fern Therapy or Freedom Wheelchair Skills,  which has a series of excellent videos to help you perfect the most basic techniques through to advanced and expert skills.

Adapt your living space

It is important to make your home environment suitable to accommodate your wheelchair and ensure it is accessible. Some of these changes may include:

  • Installing ramps or a stairlift to overcome steps or stairs
  • Widening doorways and hallways
  • Reorganising furniture to create clear pathways
  • Installing grab bars in the bathroom and other areas where additional support may be needed

Adaptations can be costly. As a disabled person, you could be entitled to a grant from your local council if you need to make changes to your home. This is called a disabled facilities grant.

Explore other mobility aids

In addition to your wheelchair, you may require other mobility aids to support your daily activities. Some of these might include:

  • Transfer boards: these can help you move safely from your wheelchair to other surfaces, such as a bed or a car seat.
  • Grabbers or reachers: these tools can assist you in picking up objects from the floor or hard-to-reach places.
  • Hand controls: these devices can be installed in your car to enable you to operate the accelerator and brakes with your hands, allowing you to continue driving.

Maintain your health and well-being

Staying physically and mentally healthy is vital when adjusting to life in a wheelchair. Develop a regular exercise routine tailored to your abilities, and consult a physiotherapist for guidance on appropriate exercises. Eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight can also have a significant impact on your overall well-being.

Build a support network

Having a strong support network is essential in helping you navigate the challenges of adjusting to life in a wheelchair. Reach out to friends and family for emotional support, and consider joining a local support group or online community for people who have experienced spinal injuries. The Spinal Injuries Association hosts regular community support groups across the UK, providing attendees the opportunity to connect with others in similar situations who can provide valuable advice, encouragement, and understanding. The Back Up Trust hosts an online forum every other Wednesday where no topic is off-limits. 

Pursue work, hobbies and interests

Retaining a sense of purpose, structure and enjoyment in life is important when adjusting to your new circumstances. If you are of working age and would like to return to work after your spinal injury there is lots of support to help you return to your previous career, or transfer your skills to a new one. Continue to pursue your hobbies and interests, or explore new ones that are compatible with your wheelchair. Many sports and activities can be adapted for wheelchair users, such as wheelchair basketball, tennis, and even dancing. Check out our guide to sport, hobbies and interests as a wheelchair user.

Educate others

Be prepared to educate others about your disability and how they can best support you. Most people are well-meaning and will be keen to offer their assistance, but may have little experience of interacting with a wheelchair user and require help. This may include explaining how to assist you in a respectful and helpful manner, or informing them about the proper etiquette when interacting with wheelchair users. By educating others, you can help to create a more inclusive and understanding environment for yourself and others in similar situations.

Plan for accessibility when travelling

Travelling as a wheelchair user can be an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience, but often requires some additional planning. Whether you are going on a day trip or an extended holiday, accessibility is crucial. Research the accessibility features of your destination, including wheelchair-friendly routes, public transportation, and accessible accommodations. 

Consider using apps and websites specifically designed for wheelchair users to help you find accessible locations and activities, and speak to other wheelchair users for hints and tips on accessible destinations or accommodation. If you are planning to fly, a number of UK airports host ‘try before you fly’ events where you can familiarise yourself with the process of boarding and disembarking from a plane. 

Develop coping strategies

Adjusting to life in a wheelchair can be emotionally challenging, and it is normal to experience feelings of frustration, grief, or anger. Develop healthy coping strategies to manage these emotions, such as practising mindfulness, seeking counselling, or engaging in creative outlets like journaling or painting.

It can often help to speak to others who have similar experiences of spinal injury. Charities such as Back Up and the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) can put you in touch with other spinal cord injured people who can help, and the SIA has a team of trained counsellors, all of who have personal experience of spinal injury.

Celebrate your achievements

As you adapt to your new life, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate your achievements, no matter how small they may seem. This could be mastering a new wheelchair manoeuvre, successfully completing a task independently, or participating in a new activity. Recognising your progress can help to boost your self-esteem and encourage you to continue striving for greater independence and fulfilment.

With the correct support and a positive attitude, a fulfilled and happy life is achievable following spinal injury.

Talk to us

If you have suffered a spinal injury in an accident that was not your fault, get in touch with our friendly and experienced solicitors today by calling 0345 872 6666. Alternatively, fill in our online contact form and we will get back to you.

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