If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, we don’t need to explain the challenges that this autoimmune disorder can pose in your life.
Fortunately, for most sufferers of MS, a loss of independence through the ability to drive isn’t necessarily one of them. Despite the fact that multiple sclerosis can present some physical, visual, or cognitive deficits, most individuals are still able to effectively get behind the wheel and drive.
In this article, we’ll explore multiple sclerosis and how it can affect your ability to drive safely. Then, we’ll explore how with a little bit of help from adaptive equipment and some guidance from a certified driver rehabilitation specialist, you can safely and confidently continue driving.
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
MS is an autoimmune disease caused when T cells mistakenly attack the cells that produce myelin, a fatty material that protects your nerves. This results in progressive, unpredictable damage to nerves throughout your body, and can have a wide range of effects.
MS typically manifests between the ages of 20 and 40, often starting with visual disruptions as well as other symptoms like tingling, numbness, pain, or weakness in your limbs, along with fatigue, confusion, digestive and bladder problems, and depression.
Over time, these symptoms can progress to the point where it is difficult to stand or grasp objects, often requiring the use of a wheelchair. However, most studies have shown that MS does not generally affect your lifespan.
Forms of Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis can take one of four forms.
The most common of these is relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), which tends to increase in bouts. With RRMS, symptoms will intensely increase, followed by a plateau that can last months to years, leaving behind mild residual. However, each of these residual deficits is progressively worse.
Secondary progressive MS (SPMS) is similar to RRMS but tends to have more of a steady progression instead of a plateau between bouts, and there are fewer large gaps of time in between bouts.
Primary Progressive MS (PPMS) lacks the sudden bouts of increased symptoms that RRMS and SPMS have, and instead is marked by a continuous increase in symptoms with no breaks.
The final form of MS is Progressive Relapsing MS (PRMS). It is similar to PPMS in that it continuously progresses but has bouts of drastically increased progression that can lead to severe disability much quicker than the other forms.
There is no cure for MS, but there are medications for the relapsing forms that can decrease the frequency and severity of bouts. Research also suggests that diet, exercise, and vitamin supplements including B and D vitamins can help to minimize symptoms.
How Can MS Affect My Ability to Drive?
Studies have shown that people with MS have a 300% greater chance of getting in a car accident than healthy drivers. This is for three main reasons.
First, the symptoms of MS can make the tasks of driving very demanding. Second, the unpredictability of symptoms means that these complications can arise suddenly while on the road. Finally, many of the medications for MS can cause drowsiness or decreased coordination.
We’ll explore these complications below.
How MS Affects a Driver’s Cognitive Abilities
People with MS may be more easily confused or disoriented, have difficulty focusing in complicated and distracting environments, or may even suffer from short-term memory loss.
All of these challenges can significantly increase your risk on the road, where constant focus and concentration are required behind the wheel.
How MS Affects a Driver’s Physical Abilities
The physical complications of driving with MS tend to fall into two categories — control and comfort.
Problems with your muscles, like cramps, stiffness, weakness, or spasms, can make it hard to control your vehicle effectively, especially in times where you may need to respond quickly to hazards on the road.
Though not as directly pressing, complications like increased fatigue, as well as muscle soreness and tightness can take a toll on long road trips, serving as a distraction and increasing your risk on the road.
Finally, as MS progresses, it can result in partial or complete loss of function in your arms or legs. However, in many cases, these challenges can be overcome with the use of adaptive equipment.
How MS Affects a Driver’s Visual Abilities
MS often starts with visual complications, which can manifest as blind spots, blurred vision, double vision, and even the loss of the ability to see color. In an activity like driving, which requires constant visual scanning, these challenges can be a hefty obstacle to safety on the road.
What Can I Do To Be in Better Shape for Driving with MS?
The one thing you have the most control over when battling MS is your general health.
MS symptoms can get worse when you’re sick, so making sure to get adequate sleep, exercise, and eat healthily can make a real difference in your driving ability. We also recommend staying off the road when you’re under the weather.
For more guidance on how to improve your overall health, you can speak with your trusted healthcare provider.
Who Determines If I Can Drive with MS?
In Connecticut, there are no laws that specifically prevent people from driving based on medical conditions.
The state does encourage physicians, law enforcement, or family members to submit an anonymous, protected medical license suspension form if they’re concerned about a driver’s safety. Still, this suspension form can lead to a complicated process, so it’s not ideal.
In many cases, this means it falls to you and your loved ones to stay informed about your health and make smart decisions about whether or not you’re safe to drive. And while your healthcare professional can be a good place to start, we recommend working with an expert.
Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (CDRSs), are occupational therapists and driver rehab experts that can work directly with you to understand your unique challenges, as well as what obstacles you might face if you want to return to the safe operation of a motor vehicle.
What Does Next Street Look for When Assessing Me to Drive with MS?
These driver education and driving rehab specialists can meet you in the comfort of your own home for a friendly, clinical evaluation.
In this driving assessment, they’ll be able to check your physical, mental, and visual abilities to drive, and make a recommendation on what assistance, special devices, or occupational therapy you might need to return to driving.
As we mentioned above, the obstacles of MS for driving include reduced sight, peripheral vision, reaction time, decision making, comfort, and control of your vehicle (among other affected driving abilities), and these experts can help you understand exactly what challenges you’ll need to overcome.
Possible Driving Outcomes
Based on our CDRSs evaluation, we will help you determine which course of action is best for your unique circumstances.
In some cases, your symptoms of MS may be mild enough that you can safely and comfortably continue driving.
However, in these cases, we may work with you to help hone your skills and plan ahead for any contingencies (like sudden flare-ups) that may take place on the road.
Because MS can cause difficulty with your vision or concentration, it may be safe to drive during low-stress environments, but not in more difficult conditions like at night or in bad weather.
In these situations, we’ll recommend you avoid driving in these high-risk environments (which also include heavy traffic or freeway driving).
Adaptive Driving Devices
Everyone with MS faces different challenges, but for some people with physical challenges, adaptive driving equipment can make a real difference.
Hand controls can help overcome problems you might have with leg strength and coordination. A spinner knob can help ease the stress of gripping the wheel. There are also possible accommodations for wheelchairs, like a lockdown system or a lift and ramp and extended mirrors to combat vision deficits.
All of these recommendations can be made by your CDRS. Then, once you’ve gone through training on how to safely use this equipment, and passed a follow-up driving test, you’ll be able to drive again.
Retirement From Driving
In some rare cases, MS can progress to the point where severe symptoms mean it’s safer to stop driving. However, in these cases, our CDRSs can work with you to create a customized, alternative transportation plan.
With metro transit, ride services, and the assistance of loved ones, it’s possible to travel freely even without the use of a car.
Take the Next Step
Here at Next Street, our goal is to help you maintain as much freedom, independence, and mobility as possible while remaining safe and comfortable.
If you or a loved one has multiple sclerosis and is thinking about a return to the road, you can reach out to us for a free consultation.