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Wheelchair Armrest Choices

by Jessica Pedersen, OTR, MBA, ATP
Learn the basics behind the variety of armrests offered and how your choice could impact your life.

The decision to use armrests on a wheelchair is strictly up to you and what makes you comfortable. Many active wheelers believe that armrests get in the way of function and the ability to sit at tables and desks. They also don't want an additional part to increase the chair weight.

Armrests do offer some benefits, however. Armrests allow you to rest your arms at a height that is higher than your lap. When you place your arms on the armrests, you take the pull of gravity off your arms and shoulders. The extra weight of the arms might actually pull you forward, causing a slouched posture. With the weight of your arms resting on the armrest, you might be able to straighten your spine and sit more upright.

Armrests are also used to support trays and one-sided arm supports.

There are a variety of armrests to choose from. Some can flip up or be removed. Lower priced chairs do not offer this option and might have only a fixed height and be non-removable. This might interfere with transfers and might not be at a correct height to provide you with optimal arm support. For instance, if the armrests are too low, it will encourage your body to lean forward. If the armrests are too high, you might have to raise your shoulders just to get the arms on the armrests. Armrests that are too high might also dig into your armpits.

Here are some considerations based on your armrest choices:

Attachments for armrests:

  • Fixed: These are bolted or welded to the frame of the wheelchair.
  • Dual Post: These have two vertical tubes that insert into the side frame of the wheelchair.
  • Single Post/T-arm: These have one vertical tube that inserts into the side frame. It offers more clearance for coming up to a table, but is slightly less stable that the dual post armrests.
  • Flip down/Cantilever: Rather than attaching to the side frame, the armrest attaches to the back upright canes and can be flipped upward to allow clearance.

Armrest style:

  • Full Length, Fixed, Removable Armrests: These armrests have a fixed height and provide arm support from the back to the front of the seat.
  • Full Length, Adjustable, Removable Armrests: These are adjustable height, usually with a push pin, and provide support from the back to the front of the seat. They are often recommended if a lap tray is being used because of the stability of a long arm support and adjustability in height to get the tray in the optimal position.
  • Desk Length, Fixed, Removable Armrest: These have a fixed height and provide arm support from the back to three-fourths of the seat.
  • Desk Length, Adjustable Height Removable Armrest: Here you have the ability to adjust height and have arm support from the back of the chair to three-fourths of the seat. This allows the chair to come under a table or up to a desk.
  • Space Saver Arm: The armrest curves inward to bring the armrests closer to the body.
  • Tubular: These are usually flip down with hardware on the rear uprights, or curve downward and attach to a receptacle behind the seat of the chair. There may be rolled padding on the armrest or an upholstered padded armrest can be ordered. Adjustment depends on the kind of attachment hardware.
  • Swing Away Armrests: The armrest swings to the side or back behind the wheelchair to allow for transfers or clearance.

Armrest pads:

The armrest pads attach to the armrests. They can be padded upholstered, hard plastic or a self-skinned composite material. The non-padded upholstered pads might be a better choice if a tray is going to be added so the tray will not rip the padding.

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