This NASA Engineer Has Revolutionized The Wheelchair

Brilliance | Dec. 10, 2017

This topic is the second in a three-part series, presented by Rowheels, on the science of life in a wheelchair. Rowheels is reinventing the wheelchair with their patented reverse "pull" propulsion system, which curbs injuries associated with traditional "push" wheeling.

If you've ever spent time in a wheelchair, or know someone who has, then you probably know that simply trying to get around can be a cause of additional injury. In fact, up to 70% of individuals in traditional wheelchairs — that is, those that require a pushing motion to move forward — develop chronic shoulder pain. But Rowheels, a set of wheels that require users to pull in a rowing motion to propel the wheelchair forward, is hoping to end those repetitive-stress injuries once and for all.

There's Got To Be A Better Way

In 1998, when Salim Nasser was 20, he was hit by a drunk driver. Today, Nasser is a quadriplegic, and an engineer at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Though Nasser himself is in a motorized chair, he knew about difficulties of life in a manual wheelchair from friends and physical therapists. Many, he says, experienced chronic shoulder pain, sometimes so bad that they had to move to a power chair. In 2004, when he was tasked with coming up with a senior design project for engineering school, Nasser envisioned the very first version of Rowheels: A wheel that uses a gear system to propel a chair forward as the user pulls back. In 2010, he entered the prototype into Tech Brief's Create The Future design contest — and won. Four years later, in late 2014, the first Rowheels were on the market.

The problem with standard wheelchairs, according to Nasser, is that they put strain on a limited number of weaker muscles, and can create muscle imbalances in users. And there are a lot of users — according to the CDC, 2.2 million people in the United States alone depend on wheelchairs from day to day. According to Rowheels, those weaker muscles "do all the propulsion work causing them to become overused and tight, destabilizing the shoulder joint." Many wheelchair pushers even develop Shoulder Impingement Syndrome, a condition that causes inflammation — and potentially even tearing — of rotator cuff tendons and surrounding tissue. Because using Rowheels relies on a pulling motion, it "distributes the propulsion work over a greater number of large muscles, resulting in less fatigue and overuse of individual muscles. Rowheeling muscles stabilize the shoulder joint and retract the scapula, improving posture and reducing the risk of Shoulder Impingement Syndrome," according to the company.

The Wheel Of The Future

Aside from helping to avoid shoulder pain, Rowheels improve posture and strength, and, in the case of the REV-LX model, take about 25% less effort to propel forward. Jackie Justus, a spinal cord nursing educator at Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee, told Popular Science that the chair's rowing motion could be a "big step forward and save [wheelchair users] a lot of wear and tear." Rowheels fit any chair, come in two models (the REV-LX is easier to use, the REV-HX is quicker) and are covered by insurance. All of which has us wondering, why did it take so long for someone to reinvent the wheel?

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