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Have you ever wondered what makes a famed La-Z-Boy recliner so comfortable? Of course, it's the reclining aspect, which allows one to recline back, stretching out, all while reducing seating pressure through better weight distribution.

These exact principles apply to reclining wheelchair seating, as well, where a reclining backrest can not only reduce back pain and decrease seating pressure, but also assist with advanced medical needs like catheterization. However, not all reclining backrests are the same, with a variety to choose from based on your seating and positioning needs.

Reclining Versus Angle-adjustable
From the start, it's important to understand the difference between a "reclining" backrest and an "angle-adjustable" backrest. A reclining backrest, indeed, operates like a recliner, allowing the backrest to move from an upright to a reclined position, all at the user's immediate need. However, an angle-adjustable backrest merely allows the setting of a permanent backrest angle - say, 102-degrees - and isn't typically adjustable without tools. Put simply, if you wish to recline, recline is the exact feature to specify when choosing wheelchair technology.

Limited Recline
The most basic of reclining backrests is a limited recline, only allowing up to 115-degrees of recline, mainly for those who need some form of recline throughout the day, but not for the purpose of pressure relief (115-degrees isn't nearly enough to reduce seating pressure). A limited recline backrest is typically found on captain's style seating on power wheelchairs, where a lever on the side of the seat allows user operation.

Full Recline
Full Recline is a term used for seating - both captain's and rehab styles - that reclines to approximately 170-degrees (technically, full recline would be 180-degrees, however, anatomically, wheelchair seating doesn't typically allow such an extreme position). Still, if one is looking for the greatest range, full recline is the right choice.

Manual Recline
While all captain's-style recline backrests are "manual" - meaning that you pull a lever and recline - the term "manual recline" actually applies to rehab seating. In high-end rehab recline seating, such as on power wheelchairs or tilt-in-space manual wheelchairs, manual recline typically defines a backrest that is attendant operated, where a trigger release mechanism allows a caregiver to reposition the user by manually moving the backrest. Some manufacturers will relocate the release lever to an armrest, so that the backrest can be operated but the occupant; however, again, manual reclines are almost exclusively designed for attendant operation.

Low-Sheer Recline
Low-Sheer reclining backrests are featured on power wheelchairs, and are specifically designed to reduce reclining forces on one's back. In simple terms, imagine sitting in a seat, and reclining without removing your weight from the backrest - as the seat backrest reclines with you against it, it will tug up on your shirt a bit. The movement of the backrest against one's back is called "sheering," and can harm the skin of those who can't reposition themselves to reduce the sheering effect. To address this, a low-sheer recline places the backrest on slides, so as the canes recline, the backrest portion stays aligned with the user, dramatically reducing sheering.

Not For Everyone
Of course, as with other types of seating and positioning components, reclining backrests aren't for everyone, namely those with limited range of motion, those who cannot tolerate a change in position, or those who experience spasticity from an open backrest angle. Therefore, if one has any question of whether a reclining backrest is appropriate, one's therapist and physician should be consulted.

Where Similarities Stop and Health Starts
Ultimately, of course, comparing a La-Z-Boy recliner to a medically-necessary reclining wheelchair backrest is absurd. The fact is, for many with disabilities, a reclining backrest can increase functionality, reduce seating pressure, and ease everyday health care. No, disability-related seating isn't inherently meant for falling asleep while watching a ballgame; however, there's a lot to be said for increasing one's health and function when using a wheelchair throughout the day, fostering an improved quality of life.

Published 2/08, Copyright 2008,