Almost 40 million Americans suffer from some form of arthritis, a form of joint pain or stiffness that can make many daily tasks difficult and unpleasant, including driving.
If pain in your hands, wrists, knees, hips, neck, back, or feet makes operating a vehicle difficult or impossible, it’s easy to feel like your independence, mobility, and freedom might be soon to follow.
The good news is that there are many ways to take the pain out of driving and get you back on the road. In this article, we’ll touch on arthritis, the challenges that arise when you drive with joint pain, and some strategies to safely and confidently get behind the wheel.
What is Arthritis?
Arthritis is a broad term encompassing over 100 different disorders that cause pain and swelling in the joints.
The most common form is osteoarthritis, which tends to affect older adults, and accounts for more than half of all cases in the United States. Osteoarthritis happens when your joint cartilage wears down over the course of your life, leaving your bones to grind against each other during movement.
This causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and a reduction in flexibility in the joint, along with some other side effects like bone spurs.
The second most common form of arthritis is gout, which affects around 8 million adults in the U.S. Gout happens when buildups of uric acid develop in your joints. These buildups can lead to intense periods of intense pain that may not fade for days to weeks and can cause long-term damage.
The third most common is rheumatoid arthritis, which affects nearly 1.5 million Americans. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by an autoimmune disorder, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium, a protective layer around your joints.
As a result, these protective layers become inflamed, which can make your joints stiff, swollen, and tender and cause damage to the underlying bone and cartilage.
Arthritis can also develop as the result of psoriasis, lupus, Lyme disease, joint injury, obesity, and as a side effect of many other diseases.
How Can Arthritis Affect My Ability to Drive?
The primary way that arthritis can impact your driving is by making it painful to move your joints, which can in turn limit your strength, range of motion, and reactions behind the wheel.
Whether arthritis affects your hands, knees, and ankles, or even your spine, this pain and stiffness can present problems. Simple tasks like putting on your seat belt become more difficult, pain can make it uncomfortable to drive and lead to fatigue on longer trips, and your ability to respond to hazards on the road can be affected.
Rheumatoid arthritis also adds the possibility of eye pain and vision problems, which can make it difficult to focus on the road and see other vehicles, as well as some cognitive effects that can also increase your risk on the road.
Finally, painful arthritis caused by other diseases can also have their own additional symptoms and medications that can also impact you physically, visually, and cognitively.
At-Home Therapies for Drivers with Arthritis
The first step for treating any form of joint pain is to work with your doctor, who can provide recommendations on treatment and occupational therapy.
For example, a healthy and anti-inflammatory diet, exercise, and strategic weight loss can make a big difference to anyone living with arthritis, along with therapies like stretching, strength training, and heat-cold therapy.
The overall goal here for both younger and older drivers is to lessen your joint pain and become stronger and more mobile on the road.
Who Determines if I Can Still Drive with Arthritis?
There are no laws in Connecticut that prevent people with arthritis from driving.
The state does recommend any concerned family member, doctor, or law enforcement officer to submit an anonymous, protected license suspension form if they’re worried about someone’s safety on the road for medical reasons, but this should generally be used as a last resort.
Our recommendation is that you work with a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS) if you have painful or limiting arthritis. By working one-on-one with these certified driving rehabilitation specialists, you can get expert recommendations on potential treatment and your safety to drive.
What Next Street Looks for When Assessing Drivers with Arthritis
Our CDRSs will meet you in the comfort of your home to perform a general assessment of your motor skills, cognition, and visual ability. There’s no need to study, just make sure to get a good night’s sleep and eat well, as this assessment can take up to two hours.
After getting a general understanding of your physical, mental, and visual fitness to drive, our CDRSs will take some time to get to know your unique situation, and how arthritis might affect your ability to drive.
Based on this initial consultation, our CDRSs may make an initial recommendation, or schedule a behind-the-wheel evaluation of your driving skills at a later date.
Possible Driving Outcomes
If you have little to no serious deficits from your arthritis, you may be able to continue driving as normal, keeping in mind any recommendations from your doctor or occupational therapist for general arthritis treatment.
Restricted Driving Privilege
In some cases, you may be physically able to continue driving, but for various reasons, including problems with vision, reaction time, and range of motion, it may be safer to avoid certain conditions, like night driving, freeway driving, or driving in hazardous conditions.
Adaptive Driving Devices
Adaptive equipment can make certain parts of driving easier and help keep you safe on the road. A steering wheel knob can help overcome pain in your hands, panoramic mirrors can make it easier to cover your blind spot if you have neck pain, and hand controls can help if you suffer from leg pain.
It’s important to note that these vehicle modifications face two hurdles. First, they can be expensive. Second, they require a stringent set of certifications from a CDRS, DMV, and the Connecticut Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, including a follow-up driver’s test with your new equipment.
Retirement from Driving
In the case that your mobility is severely restricted by your arthritis, it may no longer be possible to comfortably and safely drive.
However, this doesn’t mean an end to independence and mobility. If it’s safer to retire from driving, our CDRSs can work with you to develop a transportation plan that’s tailored to you, which may involve the use of public transit, specialty transit companies, or riding with loved ones.
The Next Step
Regardless of our findings during our clinical driving assessment, the goal of our team is to help you find the best solution for you, one that keeps you as mobile, independent, and safe as possible.
If you or a loved one has arthritis and wants to return to driving safely, you can reach out to us for a free consultation.