Andy Imlay was able to get off of opioid pain medication after about two years of using Rowheels. He settled on the HX model after trying the LX Wheels in his initial demo.
Like most longtime manual wheelchair users (53 years and counting), I have been dogged by chronic shoulder pain for decades — rotator cuff tears, acromioclavicular joint pain, frozen shoulder syndrome. I have managed to stave off shoulder surgery by occasionally easing up on activity, accepting help loading and unloading my chair from my vehicle, having periodic cortisone injections and getting physical therapy when symptoms worsened. Also, recently, chronic low-dose opioid use has given me some relief.
I have also found that regular at-home workouts with bands or hand weights and stretching exercises can help balance out harmful effects of overused muscles, reduce pain and partially restore healthy functioning shoulders — but only if I am dedicated, consistent and know how to engage specific underused muscles. Studies have shown that another helpful activity is reverse wheeling: taking time to regularly wheel backwards up a moderate incline, but there is only so much of that you can do.
But what if a wheelchair existed that could be propelled by pulling back on the rims instead of pushing forward?
As a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Florida International University in 2004-2006, Salim Nasser, 43, a C5 quad since 1994, designed the first reverse wheelchair propulsion system aiming to do just that. In 2010, his design won a national design contest sponsored by NASA. Rimas Buinevicius, a successful entrepreneur, read about Nasser’s design and contacted him in 2011 after spending four months in a wheelchair from a broken leg. Nasser and Buinevicius co-founded Rowheels in 2011.
I contacted Rowheels to see if I could get a pair of demo wheels to attach to my TiLite TR rigid chair for a trial. Since my purpose was to see if it would work for not only me, but also other active lifestyle wheelers, I requested contact info for other Rowheels users so I could have a more diverse group to report on. None of the Rowheels users I interviewed have received any form of compensation from Rowheels, nor have I.
Three Users Weigh In
Anthony Maleski, 41, uses a wheelchair as a result of a traumatic brain injury in 2008. After eight years of wheeling, he developed pain in his shoulders and elbows. “I purchased a set of Rowheels LX wheels and put them on my Quickie GT a little over two years ago. After a while, I decided to go to the high gear wheels. I like to go fast and keep up with everyone else around me,” he says. “The wheels have helped with the pain quite a bit.”
He uses a Rough Rider with mountain bike wheels as a second chair in rough terrain. “I mainly use my Rowheels on my Quickie around the house and most of the time when I’m out in civilization. In my small house, it’s easier to move and turn around and get out of tight spots and corners. You can wiggle out. You have more options.” He says it’s fun using the chair in his home, mainly because his kids are so fascinated by it. “I have four kids, and they are always wanting to use it. Whenever I get out of the chair, there is a contest to see who gets to use it.”
In 2016, Andy Imlay was working long days at a theme park in his wheelchair. Imlay, 39, has cerebral palsy and was taking 150 mg/day of tramadol, an opioid, for moderate to severe shoulder pain. He came across the Rowheels website, asked for a demo, and has been using his HX wheels on his TiLite Aero Z since then. “I’m happy to report that as of a month ago, I no longer take any pain meds,” he says. “I absolutely think it has everything to do with the Rowheels. And I’ve lost some weight. The high gear wheels cause me to pull back harder.”
He says going up ramps is a little tricky, so he uses anti-tip bars and the push-pull method — pushing the tires forward on the down stroke for an “after-boost” after pulling back on the rims to go forward. “The demo chair had the LX wheels and I almost flipped the chair over,” he says. “The HX model is better suited for me. It’s best to be careful and gentle.”
Loading the chair into his four-door 2014 Dodge Avenger is a little more difficult due to the added wheel weight, but he can do it. If someone rides with him, they usually help him stow the frame and detached wheels in the rear seat.
Dee Majeski says her rotator cuff issues started to improve after using HX Rowheels for two months. Now she has no shoulder pain at all..