Easing the way for drivers with chronic pain

Man driving with sore neck

Sue Hewitt

Posted May 12, 2021

Chronic pain can interfere with our ability to drive, but there are ways to help.

Many drivers can feel their muscles twinge after a long stint behind the wheel but for people with chronic pain, the challenge of driving for prolonged periods can impact their everyday lives. Experts say 14 per cent of Australians – 3.5 million people – suffer chronic pain, but many want to continue to drive.

“Sometimes people find it difficult just getting in or out of a vehicle but want to adapt because they see driving as their independence,” says chief executive officer of Pain Australia, Carol Bennett. 

She says there are many strategies and devices drivers with chronic pain can use to keep themselves safe and comfortable behind the wheel, including talking to health professionals.  

However, RACV research into Australian drivers suffering chronic pain has found health professionals need clearer guidelines on treating the issue to help motorists manage their pain. 

Researchers interviewed 17 Australian health professionals and found they wanted specific training to better assess the subjective nature of pain and its effect on driving ability. 

Researchers also conducted an online survey of 90 motorists, half suffering chronic pain and the rest being pain free, to assess the impact of pain on driving. They interviewed 23 drivers about their experience with chronic pain. 

RACV’s senior policy adviser on safety, Elvira Lazar, says this study is the first in Australia to seek strategies to improve safe driving among individuals with chronic pain. 

She says the research shows motorists with chronic pain have difficulty with prolonged driving which can impact their daily lives.  

“The pain is often exacerbated after prolonged driving and there is an urgent need for better guidance to take the guesswork out of the best way to manage chronic pain in relation to driving,” she says. 

Person driving

Sometimes people find it difficult just getting in or out of a vehicle but want to adapt because they see driving as their independence.

The RACV research will form part of RACV’s submission to the National Transport Commission (NTC) review into its national Assessing Fitness to Drive guidelines. The guidelines, which are used by state authorities including VicRoads to assess a person’s ability to drive, do not currently address chronic pain. 

The NTC is seeking input from the medical community, patient representative bodies, industry, public health and transport agencies on its review.

Pain Australia says chronic pain comes in many forms. It can be persistent migraines, arthritis or back pain, or debilitating pain after surgery. Sufferers may have multiple other health issues. 

“Chronic pain is often an invisible condition,” says Carol Bennett. “But although the disability can’t be seen in the form of a broken limb, the condition is so common that one in five GP consultations deal with some form of chronic pain.”

She says sufferers can help themselves through such self-management techniques as exercise and using driving aids like reversing cameras or lane-assist technology to minimise the need to turn their head. 

“Be practical; if you have back pain, use a lumbar support cushion, sit forward to reach the pedals and hold the steering wheel so it’s comfortable.” 

Pain Australia’s tips for driving with chronic pain

Talk to a medical professional

Your GP may suggest a range of strategies to help you deal with pain, including exercise, pain-management techniques, aids and devices. A physiotherapist can help with increasing and maintaining your movement and muscle strength through a tailored exercise program and pain-relief techniques. Staying active is key to continuing to drive. 

Adjust your driving position

Sometimes simply adjusting your seat and mirrors can ease pain, but do it before you set out on a drive. If you’re suffering ankle or foot pain move your seat forward to ensure you’re pushing pedals with your entire foot, not just the toes, and adjust the seat height so you can reach the pedals easily. Once the seat is adjusted, ensure you have good visibility using your mirrors and windows. 

Know your medications

Check with your medical professionals and understand that medications can affect a driver’s concentration, reaction time and coordination, or make them drowsy. People with multiple health problems may have different medications that adversely react with each other so check with your GP. Avoid drinking alcohol which can aggravate medication side-effects. 

Take a break

Long trips often aggravate pain and drivers should stop at least once an hour, get out and stretch or massage tight muscles. Build short breaks into a long journey and use the time to check out local sights. Pain is tiring and can lead to fatigue which will affect driving ability. Never drive if you’re feeling fatigued or “foggy”. 

Consider aids and devices

An occupational therapist can help advise on aids and devices to make driving more comfortable. They include: 

  • A swivel-seat cushion placed on top of your car seat. You sit down on the cushion with your body facing out and then swivel your body and legs around to face the dashboard. 
  • A lumbar back support pillow or a rolled-up a towel to support your lower back. 
  • A steering-wheel cover to make the steering wheel easier to grip if you have stiff, sore hands. 
  • A petrol-cap turner to twist the petrol cap on or off will also help those with bad hands. 
  • Grab handles and bars can be added to your car to make getting in and out easier.  
  • Reversing cameras and parking sensors are standard in many new cars and can be added to older ones. They make parking and reversing easier if you have problems twisting, turning your neck or looking over your shoulder.