Living with Chronic Pain

11 Tips for Driving With Chronic Pain


Driving can exacerbate pain levels for those dealing with chronic pain conditions, such as back or neck pain, or arthritis. This is especially true when driving long distances. However, certain steps can be taken that make driving more comfortable, enjoyable and safer.

Eleven tips for driving with chronic pain include the following:

  1. Get in and out of the car with care. When getting in a car, face away from the seat, sit down, and rotate your body into the car without twisting the back. When getting out of the car, swivel the entire body toward the door, scoot forward, and grasp the door or door frame when rising.
  2. Make sitting as comfortable as possible. Adjust the seat to ensure the steering wheel is within easy reach, but not closer than 10 inches (25.4 cm) from the breastbone. The height of the seat should be adjusted to ensure the knees are slightly higher than the hips. Sit up straight with the chin pulled in, so the head is directly above the spine. Placing a small pillow or rolled up towel between the lower back and the seat can provide back support. Sitting on a wallet or phone can lead to an imbalance and discomfort; therefore, back pants pockets should always be empty.
  3. Help the steering wheel be easier to grip. If you experience hand or wrist pain, leather gloves can provide traction on the steering wheel. A padded steering wheel cover may also be beneficial.
  4. Use cruise control when possible. Safely using the cruise control allows both feet to be placed flat on the floor board, which can help with certain types of pain, such as low back pain. It also allows the spine to be in a neutral position, which lowers pain.
  5. Implement care when checking blind spots. Neck pain or stiffness can make it difficult to look over your shoulder when checking blind spots. Turning the upper and lower back together, instead of just the neck, can help. If this remains difficult, snap-on mirror extensions for the rearview and side mirrors provide better sight while requiring less rotation.
  6. Take driving breaks. Sitting in one position can contribute to stiffness and pain. Walking and stretching during a 15-minute break every two hours can ease stiffness. Depending on the chronic pain, stopping every 30 to 60 minutes may be necessary.
  7. Try using temperature therapy. Portable ice packs or heating pads may reduce pain while driving. However, temperature therapy should only be used for 15 to 20 minutes per hour to protect the skin. Some vehicles have heated seats that provide a low level of heat, which can soothe and relax muscles in the back and upper legs.
  8. Find distractions from pain. Focusing on discomfort or pain can make it worse. To safely distract yourself from the pain, listen to enjoyable music, an audiobook, or a podcast.
  9. Take pain medication before driving, if it is safe. Taking a pain reliever, such as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) or acetaminophen, before a drive may reduce pain. Check with your physician or pharmacist regarding which pain medications are safe to take before driving. Some medications cause drowsiness or other side effects that make driving dangerous.
  10. Make the drive as smooth as possible. Replace your car’s worn shocks and tires as needed to reduce the amount of bounce or vibration. When choosing a vehicle, consider a passenger car rather than a sports utility vehicle or truck, since it can provide a smoother ride.
  11. Consider adaptive changes to the vehicle. You may require more extensive adjustments, such as hand controls or special seating, in order to drive comfortably and safely. A driver rehabilitation specialist can help determine which type of vehicle adaptive equipment will work best for you.

Additional source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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