Sore, aching, throbbing joints are no fun. For almost 40 million Americans with some form of arthritis, this can be a torturous daily occurrence. Pain in your hands, wrists, knees, hips, neck, back, or feet can make simple tasks like driving seem daunting. As operating a vehicle becomes too uncomfortable to do, you may feel your independence slipping away, and you may worry that you won’t be able to get to work, care for your family, or keep participating in life with others. Fortunately, in most cases, there are ways you can modify your lifestyle and your car to take the pain out of driving and get you back on the road.
Arthritis is a broad term encompassing over 100 different disorders that cause pain and swelling in the joints.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form, accounting for more than half of all cases in the United States. It is most common in older adults and occurs when the cartilage that forms a cushion between bones is slowly worn away, leaving the bone ends to grind against each other during movement. This causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and a reduction in flexibility in the joint.
The second most common form of arthritis is gout, with more than 8 million sufferers in the U.S. It happens when crystals of uric acid begin to deposit in joints (typically the big toe, but it can occur anywhere in the body), and can lead to periods of intense pain lasting several hours, followed by days to weeks of discomfort.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects nearly 1.5 million Americans. It is caused by an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium. These membranes form a protective layer around the joints, and when they are inflamed, they can cause damage to underlying bone and cartilage.
The primary way that arthritis can impact your driving is by making it painful to move your joints and thus limiting your strength and range of motion. If your arthritis is in your hands, it can be difficult to open the car door, put on your seat belt, turn the key, or operate the steering wheel. If it is in your knees or ankles, getting in and out of the car and operating the pedals can be a challenge. Some people experience arthritis in their spine, which can make maintaining a safe driving posture painful, and it can be difficult to turn your head to look for passing cars.
You should always consult your primary doctor to determine the exact cause of your arthritis and follow their recommendations on how to treat it. That being said, there are several things you can do in general to relieve arthritis symptoms and make driving more tolerable. As with most health issues, a healthy diet and exercise can make a huge difference. Make sure to include stretching to help improve your range of motion, as well as strength training to improve joint stability. If you are overweight, losing a few pounds will lessen the load on your joints and ease your pain.
It is also often possible to relieve arthritis pain by alternating heat and cold therapy. Heat can help to loosen and relax joints and muscles in the morning or before exercise, whereas cold can help to reduce swelling and relieve pain after exercise.
In advanced or extreme cases, you may need adaptive driving equipment to address your defecits.
There are no laws in Connecticut that prevent someone with arthritis from driving. Really, the decision to drive or not rests on you and your family. If you are questioning your abilities or are concerned that you may be unsafe, we recommend an assessment with our Certified Driving Rehab Specialist. Our team of therapists can evaluate your skills and work with you on alternative driving methods or adaptive driving equipment. Your arthritis does not have to mean you forefit your license, you may just need to change your driving skills and habits.
In cases where it is possible, we meet with you in the comfort of your own home and carry out an assessment of your abilities. All you need to do to prepare is to get a good night’s sleep and eat normal meals so you have the strength and energy to get through the visit, which can take up to two hours. Don’t worry about needing to memorize anything, this isn’t a test of your knowledge, it is an assessment of your motor skills and your cognitive and visual abilities.
We start out by taking the time to get to know you and your unique situation. Then we evaluate your visual, physical, and cognitive abilities. We check your visual acuity, peripheral vision, and your ability to move your eyes about and scan your environment. We check your physical flexibility, strength, and coordination. This includes both muscle coordination and hand-eye coordination. There will also be several exercises we do to evaluate your memory, awareness, judgment, reaction time, and ability to follow directions. If this all goes well, at a later date we will recommend you for a behind-the-wheel evaluation where we can work with your skills and try out adaptive equipment, if it is a possible solution.