Transitioning to a Wheelchair with MS: When and How?

Those with multiple sclerosis (MS) can experience mobility difficulty as the disease progresses. Among several symptoms include decreased balance, increased spasticity, sensation changes, vision impairment, muscle weakness or a combination of these symptoms, which can affect mobility.  When your lower extremities aren’t functioning optimally, you may need to seek out assistance in the form of walkers, wheeled walkers, crutches, braces, canes or even wheelchairs. If you opt for a wheelchair, sometimes it’s a difficult decision because you’re wrestling with the perception that only severe cases of mobility warrant a wheelchair. Not true.

The goal of using a wheelchair is to maintain safety and maximize home and community access. Several factors need to be considered when transitioning to a wheelchair.  Obviously the first consideration is your functional status and whether you have recently experienced an increase in accidents due to muscle fatigue or loss of balance.  A second reason might be if you are self-sufficient enough to function with daily living.  A decrease in fine-motor skills and general fatigue may begin to take its toll on you, and those everyday functional tasks may not be so easy anymore.

Wheelchair Choices

Choosing the right wheelchair for your needs can be an interesting proposition. The process begins when your physician prescribes you one. But doctors don’t always know the best and latest in wheelchairs, so it’s important to go through the selection process with someone who has experience with MS wheelchairs.  A physical or occupational therapist is the best one to ask.  They are, by far, the most experienced on the subject.  They’ll measure and fit you for your wheelchair, measure your house to be sure the wheelchair fits and compare wheelchair options from various wheelchair manufacturers.  Another option is to go to a wheelchair clinic with your therapist. These clinics have seating experts with special equipment to evaluate what kind of extra wheelchair features you may need, such as recline and tilt mechanisms, pressure-relieving cushions, brake extensions, seating systems and other accessories to help with your specific MS symptoms and mobility.

Power or Manual

MS wheelchairs have certainly changed over the years.  They are much lighter, and there mechanics are state-of-the-art. Whether you choose a motorized or manual wheelchair, the
decision should rest on your current symptoms, finances and lifestyle.  Obviously a motorized wheelchair is significantly more expensive.

  • Motorized wheelchair- If you don’t have enough strength to operate a manual wheelchair, you’ll need a motorized version to maintain your independence. Today there are a ton of choices, which are both fast and powerful. If you have significant impairment, such as paralysis, breath-activated devices are available.

Motorized wheelchairs are usually heavy. So you’ll need to consider a van with a wheelchair lift or ramp for getting around away from home. Also, because motorized wheelchairs are a lot more pricey, it’s important to see what your insurance covers for reimbursement purposes.

  • Manual wheelchair- This is a good choice if you have enough upper body strength to operate the wheelchair yourself.  A manual wheelchair is lighter and easier to transport. The lightest manual wheelchairs are made of titanium (vs. aluminum) and are often used by disabled athletes.

Wheelchair Purchases

Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers will usually cover the cost of a wheelchair if your MS symptoms necessitate the use of one. Your physician will need to detail your specific needs for insurance approval.  Additionally, wheelchair vendors will sometimes offer financing or cover the cost, should your insurance policy not provide coverage. If all else fails, and you aren’t able to get covered for a wheelchair, you can buy second-hand models. They are half the cost, and most likely tax-deductible.


David Novak is a international syndicated newspaper columnist, appearing in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV around the world. His byline has appeared in GQ, National Geographic, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, USA Today, among others, and he has appeared on The Today Show, the CBS Morning Show and Paul Harvey Radio. David is a specialist at consumer technology, health and fitness, and he also owns a PR firm and a consulting company where he and his staff focus on these industries. He is a regular contributing editor for Healthline. For more information, visit
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