Regaining Independence: Driving after Surgery

by | Jul 19, 2022 | 0 comments

Regaining Independence: Driving after Surgery

If you’ve had some type of surgery and have been stuck in the house, this article is for you. I’ll share a few tips on safe driving after surgery.

Don’t Force It: Keep Everyone Safe

I know you’re probably bored to tears. And, you’re likely sick of asking for rides or taking public transportation to appointments. If you’re someone who was used to getting up and going whenever they pleased, I feel your pain.

I had to have elbow surgery after falling off my bike. I had never had surgery before and didn’t really know what to expect. I also wasn’t ready for the shock of totally needing other people to help me out all the time. it was terrible.

I couldn’t drive myself anywhere. I couldn’t do a lot of things. And so, I was stuck at home feeling helplessly reliant on other people. An annoying place to be!

A few months into my occupational therapy, my therapist started talking to me about driving. It’s funny… at therapy, they had me doing an exercise where I’d attempt to hold a big wheel and turn it from side to side (kind of like a steering wheel). I could barely do the exercise, let alone move my arm at all. I thought it was crazy that she was pushing me to get behind the wheel of a car.

So, my first suggestion is: keep yourself and everyone safe. Don’t force it. If you don’t feel ready to drive yet… you shouldn’t be driving!

How to Get Back on the Road

Driving after surgery is a big deal. Even as someone loved to drive and couldn’t wait to get my independence back, I took it slow.

I mean, think about it. Driving is no joke. You’re operating a large machine… at a very high speed. You’ve got your life and the lives of others around you to think about. Not to mention if you’ve got passengers in your vehicle.

Well, I did it. in fact, I’ve been driving for months now. Both automatic and manual. And even after elbow surgery. Even when I still can’t fully straighten my arm out.

So, you can and will get there. Here are a few suggestions to help you get back on the road.

Driving After Surgery: 5 Tips for Getting Behind the Wheel

1) Do not drive under the influence.

This first one sounds like a no-brainer, but you never know. May I remind you that you might be taking narcotic or opioid medications?

After surgery, I was prescribed OxyContin first. Then, it was hydrocodone. After that, I was put on a standing medication for nerve pain.

Even if the medication dosages or small or you’re not taking them all the time… think about it. You aren’t supposed to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Well, even prescription medications can have the effects a drug or drink can have.

Meds can make us feel woozy. They may cause drowsiness or dizziness. Your reaction time may be slower. I know when I was taking the meds for pain, I had a difficult time finding my words at times. If that was happening, I definitely shouldn’t have been behind the wheel!

Yes, the warnings do say, “Don’t operate heavy machinery while taking…” Guess what? A car or truck is a heavy machine!! So, don’t get back to driving if you’re still taking a boatload of pain meds.

2) Bring a co-pilot with you.

I knew I was getting ready. I was starting to feel antsy. Driving after surgery can be scary, but you’ll know when you’re ready to give it a go.

Driving after SurgeryOne day, my husband and I were coming back from a short walk on a hiking trail. He looked at me as we approached the car and said, “Well, you want to give it a try?” That day, I felt ready.

I gladly got behind the wheel of my manual Honda CRV. Yes, that’s right… I had a stick shift. And a bent elbow. So, it was very slow and not so steady of a start.

Even though the trip we were taking was a five-minute drive, I drove with extreme caution. Good thing there was nobody else on the road!

But my advice to you? Don’t drive alone for your first few trips. In fact, I probably drove a dozen times (short times) with my husband or neighbor or friend before I felt safe and comfortable driving alone.

3) Take short trips first.

Which brings me to my next tip… don’t overdo it. You’re still recovering from surgery. You may still experience pain or fatigue at times. Take shorter trips first.

With a co-pilot or even as I started feeling safe enough to drive alone, my first month consisted of just driving to and from errands that were close to my house. I might drive 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes at the very most.

So, take it easy. Start short. Notice yourself and how much you can tolerate being in one position at a time. I mean, think about it. When you’re driving, you can’t get up and do much moving around. If you still need a lot of repositioning to get yourself comfortable and out of pain, you might not tolerate long drives just yet.

4) Build up your stamina.

It isn’t rocket science. As you get more and more comfortable and experience less and less pain, you’ll be able to drive for longer distances. And, likely, all by yourself.

How amazing it feels! Getting back out there, by yourself, and being able to drive to what you need to do. No more asking for rides. No more calling up ride shares. You’re out there… on the road… driving after surgery!

At this point, over a year after my elbow surgery, I can proudly report that I’ve been able to drive myself over an hour away from my home.

You’ll get there. It just takes time.

5) Drive comfortably.

Pay attention to your needs. Your body is still healing and will continue to do so long into recovery.

If you need to pull over and take a break, do so. If you’ve found you need to stop to readjust a seat or a pillow or anything in the vehicle, don’t be a hero. Pull over and fix what you need to fix so you can drive safely and comfortably.

Take breaks. If you’re driving on a long trip and it’s your first one since your surgery, you might need to schedule in more rest stops than you’re used to. You’ll get there… and you want to get there alive and in one piece!

Finally, bring props if you need support. There are lots of supportive devices out there, such as foam pillows or seat wedges. Also, be sure to adjust your seat so you can safely and comfortably reach the steering wheel and pedals. You may find that you need some extra support after surgery, even behind the wheel of your vehicle. That’s OK. Anything to get you out there and driving again after surgery!

Questions? Comments? Need additional support? Click here to partner with me along your healing journey.

About the Author: Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN, HNB-BC, RYT (200) is a board-certified holistic nurse, registered yoga instructor, and reiki master.

Elizabeth received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is a certified coach, nature lover, and avid meditator.

Elizabeth lives in Maryland with her supportive husband and playful pit bull. She enjoys gardening, jigsaw puzzles, farming, music, and hiking.

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