by Wendy McBrair, MS, BSN, CHES
Most of us can remember the day we first got a license to drive. Nothing was more exciting than our newfound ability to go wherever we wanted. It was a major milestone in most Americans’ lives. Driving a car remains a very important activity throughout life for many of us. And for people who don’t live in cities, driving can be a necessity, providing the only way to get to the doctor’s office, the grocery store, the pharmacy, and even to work. Driving gives us both physical and mental independence. It allows us to come and go as we please without having to be dependent on others to drive us around.
In some cases, however, arthritis can threaten to take away the freedom driving gives us. It can make aspects of driving, from pressing the pedals to getting in and out of the car to changing lanes, more difficult and even potentially dangerous. A few helpful strategies can make driving safer (and easier) for people who find themselves in this position.
The most important consideration when you are driving is safety. To drive safely, you need to be able to operate all the car’s systems and maneuver the car with confidence. The problem is, when you have arthritis, your neck can get stiff, your hands can be painful, and your legs may be slow to move. Stretching and strengthening exercises can help you counter these problems. If your neck feels stiff, doing a stretching exercise each day can help you stay flexible enough to comfortably turn your head to the left to see approaching cars or trucks. You should exercise at home before you drive to be sure that you don’t tighten up when you are in the middle of traffic. If a stiff neck continues to be a problem for you, consider taking an exercise class that focuses on flexibility, such as yoga, water exercise, tai chi, or the Arthritis Foundation’s exercise program.
If arthritis affects your hands, they may feel more painful when you open the car door, turn the wheel of the car, turn the key, or shift gears. Warming your hands in paraffin wax or running them under hot water before driving can help. Some people cover the steering wheel with flexible leather to add more padding, which makes the steering wheel feel more comfortable. For those whose hands are sensitive to cold because of Raynaud disease, a cover also keeps them from having to touch a cold steering wheel and is especially important in the winter or in the summer when the air-conditioner is going at full blast.
Your legs also need to be strong and flexible for driving. The right leg needs to move effortlessly from accelerator to brake and back. In a stick shift car, the left leg needs to be able to push down easily on the clutch. Doing exercises such as straight leg lifts to keep your thigh (quadriceps) muscle strong is a good way to ensure that you have enough strength to operate the pedals. (To do this exercise, lie on your bed or on the floor. Bend one knee, keeping the foot flat on the bed or floor, and keep the other leg straight. Slowly raise the straight leg a few inches. Hold for a count of six, and then lower. Start off by doing the exercise three times with each leg, and gradually increase to ten repetitions.)
For additional help driving with arthritis, AARP offers a defensive driving course specifically for people dealing with age-related cognitive and physical changes. The course offers basic safe driving tips that can make you a better driver for the rest of your driving years. It might also help you lower your insurance premiums. Go to the AARP Web site or call (888) 227-7669 for more information.
A number of electronic devices can also help make driving easier. Cell phones make it possible to communicate with others in an emergency, for example if you have car trouble and need to contact AAA. A cell phone also allows you to keep family members abreast of your progress. Even if you don’t carry one with you always, you may want to keep one in the car. Remember to use your hands-free phone while driving. (Some cars even have Bluetooth connections or OnStar capabilities built in so that you can make and get calls without using your phone or a headset.) A Global Positioning System (GPS) device can help make your drive easier by “speaking” directions to you as you drive. You can also print directions off the Internet before your trip to make getting to your destination easier. Planning ahead will help give you the confidence to make the trip.
Since a new car is a very expensive and important purchase, you should do a little research and make sure to test out the car before you buy or lease it. (One note: You should of course be just as thorough when buying a used car, and most of the advice given here applies to used cars as well as new cars. However, you will have less of an opportunity to customize a used car to your needs and abilities.) The car should meet your physical needs. Do the seats adjust for complete comfort and ease of driving? Are they designed, or can they be adjusted, to support your lower back? Make sure the seat is soft enough for long trips but not so soft that you have trouble getting out of it. Also make sure that you can see the traffic behind and next to you, using all three mirrors. Most people with arthritis look for cars with an automatic transmission, power steering, and electric seats and windows. All the controls should be easy to use. Is it easy to shift gears? To turn on the air-conditioning or windshield wipers? Some people prefer a larger car with a softer ride. Others prefer a smaller car that they feel is easier to maneuver. SUVs can fit a lot of people and haul or pull more things, but they can be more difficult to enter, exit, or drive for someone who is short or who has physical limitations such as pain, weakness, or limited range of motion. On the other hand, they may be easier to load up with groceries.
Last Reviewed on March 21, 2012
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