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Steering-by-leaning facilitates intuitive movement control and improved efficiency in manual wheelchairs.

BACKGROUND: Manual wheelchair propulsion is widely accepted to be biomechanically inefficient, with a high prevalence of shoulder pain and injuries among users. Directional control during wheelchair movement is a major, yet largely overlooked source of energy loss: changing direction or maintaining straightforward motion on tilted surfaces requires unilateral braking. This study evaluates the efficiency of a novel steering-by-leaning mechanism that guides wheelchair turning through upper body leaning.

METHODS: 16 full-time wheelchair users and 15 able-bodied novices each completed 12 circuits of an adapted Illinois Agility Test-course that included tilted, straight, slalom, and 180° turning sections in a prototype wheelchair at a self-selected functional speed. Trials were alternated between conventional and steering-by-leaning modes while propulsion forces were recorded via instrumented wheelchair wheels. Time to completion, travelled distance, positive/negative power, and work done, were all calculated to allow comparison of the control modes using repeated measures analysis of variance.

RESULTS: Substantial average energy reductions of 51% (able-bodied group) and 35% (wheelchair user group) to complete the task were observed when using the steering-by-leaning system. Simultaneously, able-bodied subjects were approximately 23% faster whereby completion times did not differ for wheelchair users. Participants in both groups wheeled some 10% further with the novel system. Differences were most pronounced during turning and on tilted surfaces where the steering-by-leaning system removed the need for braking for directional control.

CONCLUSIONS: Backrest-actuated steering systems on manual wheelchairs can make a meaningful contribution towards reducing shoulder usage while contributing to independent living. Optimisation of propulsion techniques could further improve functional outcomes.

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