October 29, 2018

5 Tips for Driving When You Have Arthritis or Back Problems

Here's how to make yourself more comfortable behind the wheel

Driver and passenger in car.

If arthritis or back problems make driving a car difficult and painful, you may fear you’ll have to stop driving. But don’t give up yet. With work and some modifications, you should be able to remain comfortably in the driver’s seat.

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“People with arthritis that impacts their ability to function, including driving, should start by talking to their doctor about medications and other treatment options to help alleviate pain,” says Patrick Baker, MHS, OTR/L, CLVT, CDRS, an occupational therapist with Cleveland Clinic’s Driver Rehabilitation Program.

Baker also recommends going to a physical therapist or occupational therapist. “When you have painful arthritis, too much activity can exacerbate the pain, but doing too little will make it hurt even more,” he explains. “You have to strike the right balance.”

A physical therapist can work with you on exercises for stretching and strengthening. “With good muscle tone, joints can better do what they’re supposed to do,” he says. “You can also learn how to pace yourself, so you can take full advantage of your abilities without overdoing it.”

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What you can do to make yourself more comfortable

There are simple steps you can take to minimize pain and accommodate limited range of motion when driving. Here are Baker’s top recommendations:

  1. Change how you get in and out of the car. To get in, face away from the seat. Sit and then swivel in. Do not twist your back. To get out, swivel out facing away from the seat. Scoot forward as much as possible. Use the door frame to assist, as needed. Devices, such as a strap with a handle, can be attached to the door frame for added support.
  2. Use a firm seat cushion to raise yourself up in the seat. This may also help you to see past the windshield of the vehicle, as well as the position of the vehicle relative to other objects.
  3. Help your stiff and painful hands out. Wear gloves (such as leather) that provide traction on the steering wheel to reduce the amount of grip strength required. Or use a padded steering wheel cover. You can also talk to an occupational therapist about joint protection strategies, exercises and splints.
  4. Compensate for your neck pain. Work with a physical therapist to improve range of motion in your neck and maximize flexibility in the spine. Also, when checking blind spots or reversing the car, rotate your upper and lower back to compensate for any neck limitations. Remember: Blind spot mirrors and side and rear radar detection can be helpful, but they aren’t a guarantee of safety. And when possible, park so that it’s not necessary to back up when leaving.
  5. Look for the right features when buying a new car. If it’s time for an upgrade, consider several features: Ease of getting in and out of the vehicle, power seating, radar detection (to the side, front and rear) and look for large mirrors on the outside of the vehicle.

Seek out a driving rehab specialist if you’re still uncomfortable

If problems with your back, knees, hips, hands or neck still make driving too uncomfortable, Baker recommends consulting a certified driving rehabilitation specialist. You can find one in your area on the website of the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.

“There often is more than one issue making driving more difficult, including medical conditions not related to arthritis,” he says. Certified driver rehabilitation specialists are occupational therapists trained to look at the entire person and make appropriate recommendations.

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“Driving is the most hazardous activity we do on a daily basis,” Baker says. “It takes our whole body to do it — physically, mentally, visually — so we need to be at our best.” The goal of a driver rehabilitation program is to figure out how to keep you on the road for as long as it is possible and safe.

This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Arthritis Advisor.

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