Driving After Surgery or Anesthesia

When Is It Safe to Get Behind the Wheel?

Young woman driving
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When you can drive after your surgery depends on a variety of factors and is different for every surgery patient because every patient is unique. The factors that can determine when driving is possible can vary, including the type of surgery performed, the type of anesthesia used, and your general health and age.

The length of time varies widely because the individuals and their needs are so different. The person who breaks their right leg and has a cast placed for six weeks will be unable to safely drive far longer than the individual who has a colonoscopy and is expected to be back to normal the next day. Two individuals could potentially have the same procedure performed and one might be driving weeks sooner than the other, based on the speed of their individual recoveries.

Driving After Surgery

It is never a good idea to drive yourself home from surgery, as anesthesia can slow reflexes, slow your thought processes, and can even cause amnesia in the hours following surgery. So while you may feel like yourself, your ability to drive and your judgment may be severely hampered.

For this reason, most hospitals and surgery centers will not perform a procedure or a same-day surgery if a person who will act as a driver is not present. If you are in an accident while driving after being told that you cannot drive for 24 hours after anesthesia, you can be charged with driving under the influence despite not drinking alcohol. 

In order to prevent any issues with safety, prior to your surgery take the time to arrange for transportation home with a friend, family member, or, if appropriate, ordering a car service such as a taxi or Uber. This includes driving after any dental procedure that involves sedation or anesthesia, minor outpatient procedures (such as a colonoscopy), and same-day surgical procedures.

Driving After Anesthesia

Refrain from driving for the first 24 to 48 hours after receiving anesthesia. In fact, for the first day, you should refrain from many things in addition to driving such as operating machinery, cooking, or doing any task that could obviously lead to injury, including handling a kitchen knife. 

If you receive sedation or pain medication after your surgery, your return to driving will be delayed further. These include prescription pain relievers, sedatives, muscle relaxants, and many other medications will slow your reflexes and affect your ability to drive safely.

Most medications that can impair driving will have a warning label, so be sure to look at your medications closely. Until you know how the medication will affect you, it is important that you do not operate a vehicle or any other type of equipment that could be harmful, such as a lawnmower.

While little research has been done on the risk of driving following anesthesia, a 2017 survey in the British Medical Journal reported that 57 percent of anesthesia trainees experienced a crash or near-crash following a night shift.

While the long work hours certainly contributed to the risk, the disproportionately high rate of accidents among anesthesiologist trainees compared to other trainees suggests that the even the latent exposure to anesthesia can make driving dangerous.

Reasons to Avoid Driving

Anesthesia after-effects are only one of many reasons why you would need to avoid driving following a medical procedure. Others include:

  • Limitations on strength or range of motion
  • Interference with healing and rehabilitation
  • Risk of opening sutures
  • Slowed reflexes and braking times
  • immobilization with a cast or orthopedic device
  • Reduced grip strength
  • Changes in vision, including blurriness and eye dilation
  • Placing stress on an incision with a seat belt and steering wheel
  • Placing stress on an injury by shifting or braking

While car insurance policies have no specific restrictions regarding the appropriate time to drive after a medical procedure, you may be fully liable for an accident if you get behind the wheel against your doctor's advice.

In this regard, your doctor is unlikely to cover for you since doing so may place may place the doctor's practice at legal liability.

A Word From Verywell

The decision to drive after surgery is fraught with legal and safety issues. Although driving is an important part of most people's lives, there are no well-established guidelines for determining when it is safe to drive after injury or treatment. Only your doctor can advise you about this, and you should listen and be patient.

If you are in doubt of your ability to drive, or if you are concerned about a loved one's ability to drive after their surgery, always err on the side of caution. You can always schedule a driving test like one would take prior to getting their first driver's license so that an independent person can evaluate whether driving can be done safely.

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