Equipment and Assistive Devices

What equipment is right for me?

There are many aids and devices that can help people with neuromuscular disorders live more comfortably and independently. As most neuromuscular disorders are progressive, it is likely that your need for assistive devices will change over time. Your health care team will work with you to determine the best equipment to meet your needs. You can learn about the most common assistive devices in this section.

I want to learn about:

Power Scooters
Walkers and Canes
Orthopedic Devices
Bathroom Aids
Beds and Mattresses
Communication Aids
Other Equipment

Purchasing assistive devices add financial stress. Muscular Dystrophy Canada’s Equipment Program helps people with neuromuscular disorders to obtain essential equipment and assistive devices. Contact us to learn more.



Power Scooters

Power scooters are an option to maximize functional independence. They require strong upper body strength, are relatively lightweight, and can be disassembled and transferred in a vehicle.

Power scooters may include the following features:

  • Seat over three, four, or five wheels
  • Foot plates
  • Handlebars to turn one, two, or three wheels
  • Steering column with forward/reverse directions and speed controls

There are two main types of power scooters—front-wheel drive (FD) and rear-wheel drive (RD).

FD power scooters are usually smaller than RD with a weight capacity of 250 pounds, and are appropriate for indoor use.

RD power scooters have a weight capacity of 350 pounds, and are appropriate for both indoor and outdoor use. Some RD power scooters have a weight capacity of 500 pounds depending on the manufacturer.




Walkers and Canes

Using a walker or cane can help to reduce fatigue and increase your mobility. Canes are useful when one leg is stronger than the other. Walkers provide greater overall stability and support. Your OT or PT will help you to determine the right device to meet your needs.





Do you always need another person to help you rise from a seated position?

Do you frequently stumble and fall?

Are you fatigued when you walk?

Do you avoid outings because you are afraid of injuring yourself?

Many people with neuromuscular disorders use a wheelchair to increase and ease mobility. Getting fitted with a wheelchair requires careful consideration and professional advice. An OT will complete a seating assessment to determine your needs. Although a wheelchair can be purchased from a home health supplier, it is preferable to first have a complete assessment from an OT to determine the most suitable equipment for you.

There are two main types of wheelchairs – manual and power. Each has its own list of features and considerations.

Manual wheelchairs are useful for people who have upper body stability and can easily position themselves in the chair. These chairs are light to push and usually collapse to fit easily in a car.

Manual wheelchairs may include the following features:

  • high reclining back with headrest
  • elevating leg rests
  • seat and back cushions
  • adjustable height arm rests removable for transfers
  • quick-release rear wheels for easy breakdown and storage in a vehicle
  • correct seat height for transfers and propelling yourself forward
  • seat width appropriate for entry and exit through doors at home

By Memasa (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Power wheelchairs are appropriate for people who cannot manually propel themselves. They are operated using a joystick or other devices that can be controlled by almost any part of the body that you can move.

These chairs are specifically tailored to the user to ensure they are properly fitted and easy to manage. While more expensive than a manual wheelchair, power wheelchairs allow for greater mobility and independence, especially outdoors. They do not fold, so special ramps are needed for a power wheelchair to move into a car.

Power wheelchairs may include the following features:

  • power control switches that can be modified to operate with very small muscle movements
  • back recline with head support
  • recline and tilt
  • power-operated elevated leg rests
  • power tilt



Orthopedic Devices

Many neuromuscular disorders lead to weakening of the joints and muscles, so your doctor or physiotherapist may recommend a type of body support called an orthosis.

People use orthoses to:

  • support the joints in certain positions when muscles weaken
  • prevent contractures (permanent shortening of a muscle or joint caused by prolonged spasticity or stiffness in the muscles)
  • enhance comfort
  • assist the movement of joints, limbs, and the spine

Ankle-foot orthoses Sometimes called AFOs, these are simple plastic splints that may be worn under pants. AFOs are useful for people who have weak muscles supporting the ankle joint. Weak ankle muscles may make it difficult to pick up the foot to walk properly. This is called foot drop, and can lead to stumbling on stairs or curbs and tripping while walking.

Hand and wrist supports A wrist and thumb splint can stabilize the wrist and thumb, which makes grasping eating utensils and other objects easier. Additional supports can be added for positioning the fingers, which allows fine motor movements, such as writing with weakened fingers.

The universal cuff may be the most familiar orthotic aid. The cuff straps over the hand, which enables a person with weakened hand muscles to grasp objects like cutlery, hairbrushes, and other small items.

Shoulder and neck supports Over time, weak shoulder muscles can cause the arms to hang unsupported. A shoulder sling can reduce the pressure on arm muscles and ligaments. Similarly, cervical collars are sometimes used to support the head when neck muscles are weak.





Chair lifts These motorized chairs have a switch for adjusting the incline and raising the seat. Chair lifts are useful for people with weakened legs who find it difficult to rise from a seated position.



Stair lifts A stair lift allows someone to comfortably and safely move up and down stairs by sitting in an automated chair that is fastened to a track along the staircase. This equipment should be professionally installed.



Portable lifts These lifts use a sling to lift and transfer a person. These “portable” lifts are designed to move from room to room within the home. You may hear them referred to as “Hoyer Lifts”, which is a brand name.



Ceiling track lifts This type of lift uses a rail installed in the ceiling to carry the person in a sling (similar to the one used on a portable lift). Turntable tracks allow the running tracks to intersect or cross. Ceiling lifts can be helpful to move a person between the bedroom and bathroom. Installing a ceiling lift system requires professional advice and installation.



Wheelchair lifts These can be used when it is impractical to have a wheelchair ramp from an outside door to the ground level of a home or building. Installing a wheelchair lift system requires professional advice and installation.



Lifts require careful planning to determine the best solution for your home environment. Have a professional conduct an “in-home safety assessment” in your residence before installing a lift.




Bathroom Aids

An occupational therapist or other health care provider can help you select the appropriate aids to assist in grooming and personal hygiene, such as:

Toilets Raised toilet seats or commode chairs are useful for people with weakened leg muscles. A plumber can raise the level of the toilet by placing it on a low platform.

Bidets Some people with a neuromuscular disorder have more strength in their lower body than in their arms and hands. In some cases, a bidet can provide more independence with toileting.

Bathing There are several models of bathtub seats and lifting equipment that can make bathing or showering easier.




Beds and Mattresses

As mobility becomes more difficult, you may find that sleeping in a standard bed, or getting in and out of one, is no longer feasible. Fortunately, there’s a growing variety of innovative beds and sleep products designed for someone who has limited mobility or is unable to change positions at regular intervals while sleeping. Changing position while resting or sleeping is important to prevent pressure sores and promote comfort.

Draw sheet If you’re using a regular bed, a draw sheet will help your caregiver to roll and position you. The sheet is placed underneath you, extending from shoulder level to buttocks, with at least 6 inches of sheet remaining on each side.

Satin or nylon sheets or pajamas This is an option that may increase the ease of positioning and turning.

Mattress overlays Specifically designed to prevent discomfort from immobility and encourage good blood flow to the skin, mattress overlays are fabricated from foam, rubber, gels or in an innovative honeycomb design. Similar technology can be found in wheelchair cushions. These greatly increase comfort and can help prevent painful bedsores.

Head and neck support Similar materials and technology used in foam or air mattress overlays are also used in special pillows that provide added support for the head, neck, and surrounding muscles.

Hospital beds A hospital-style bed is recommended for those who spend a majority of their time in bed or have very limited mobility. This bed allows your caregiver to adjust your position easily and elevate your feet to prevent swelling and your head for watching television, reading, etc. The height of the bed can be adjusted to prevent caregivers from stooping, bending, pushing and pulling, thereby lessening their chance of back strain or other injury.

Pressure-relief mattresses To help prevent pressure sores, alternating pressure mattress overlays automatically inflate and deflate cells along their length, and provide different pressure/firmness settings. Electrically powered turning mattress overlays will automatically turn you every few minutes (from side to side).




Communication Aids

There are a variety of aids that can help a person with impaired speech to communicate more easily. These aids vary in cost and range from lo-tech to hi-tech, such as:

  • communication letter boards based on eye-tracing movements
  • speaking valves for those on a respirator
  • small, hand-held electronic speaking devices
  • computer-based systems with sophisticated software and speech synthesizers

Have a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist assess your needs and provide technical information on the types of devices available.




Other Equipment

There are many other types of tools to assist a person with a neuromuscular disorder with active daily living, such as:

  • special cutlery and dinnerware with larger handles for easier use
  • doorknob adaptors
  • thicker pens and pencils
  • electronic switches for environmental controls
  • modified telephones

For more information about assistive devices, talk with your occupational therapist or physician.

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