BACKGROUND: Regular handrim wheelchair (RHW) propulsion is straining for the upper extremities and wheelchair users often experience overuse problems. A recent advancement in wheelchair technology that could assist users is the pushrim-activated power-assisted wheelchair (PAPAW). PAPAWs are challenging to control, yet it is unclear how people learn to use a PAPAW. The purpose of this study is to examine early skill acquisition through practice in PAPAWs and compare it with RHWs.
METHODS: Twenty-four able-bodied novices were randomly allocated to either the RHW group or the PAPAW group. The experiment consisted of five sessions with three blocks of 4 min steady-state practice at 1.11 m/s and 0.21 W/kg. Finally, a transfer to the other mode was made. Data were collected with a drag-test, breath-by-breath spirometry, and a motion capture system. The last minute of each four-minute block was used for analysis. A mixed analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to test for group, time, and interaction effects.
RESULTS: Both groups improved their (assisted) mechanical efficiency, reduced their stroke rate, right-left and forward-backward deviation on the treadmill, and had a lower rate of perceived exertion (RPE) over time. (Assisted) mechanical efficiency was higher for the PAPAW group than for the RHW group and RPE was lower. However, left-right and forward-backward deviation was also found to be higher in the PAPAW group.
CONCLUSIONS: At the group level the energetic cost of RHW and PAPAW propulsion can be lowered through low-intensity practice in novice users. The PAPAW is more 'efficient' than the RHW given the reduced energy requirement of the user from the motor assist, but more difficult to control. Future studies on PAPAWs should focus on the control needs of the user and their interaction with the power-assist technology.