Driving After an Orthopedic Injury or Surgery

One of the most common questions people ask after undergoing a medical procedure is "When can I start driving again?" When the procedure is related to an orthopedic injury, the concern is all the greater.

As an orthopedic injury heals, you may not be allowed to move the injured body part for a long period of time. This is especially true if you've had surgery or are nursing a serious fracture.

This article explains factors that affect when you can drive again after certain types of orthopedic surgeries and steps to recovery. It also discusses the role your doctor plays in helping you determine when you’re ready to get behind the wheel.

Woman driving a car in countryside
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When Can I Drive?

There are a number of factors you need to consider when determining if it's safe to start driving after surgery.

You've Been Given a Sedative

After taking any sedative medication, you shouldn't drive for at least 24 hours. This includes general anesthesia and conscious sedation. These medications don't put you totally out but do make you less aware and are used to block pain. With the anesthesia medications isoflurane, it's recommended that you wait even longer, from two to four days.

Driving restrictions may also be necessary while taking prescription opioids after a surgery. In fact, in some instances, you could be charged with "driving under the influence of drugs" (DUID) if you're pulled over by the police and have been using opioids.

Range of Motion Is Limited

With few exceptions, you cannot drive if you have a body joint that is in a hard brace or cast. This makes the joint immobilized or unable to bend at all. Even a joint that is partially restricted by a soft brace or bandage may restrict your range of motion too much to drive safely as researched in one study.

Being able to move your neck, spine, shoulder, elbow, writs, knees, ankles, and feet is essential. If your movements are impaired because of braces or stiffness, your reaction time will be much slower when trying to brake. Impaired movement can delay time to check mirrors or avoid an accident.

Exceptions may include an injury to your left knee, ankle, or foot. In those instances, you may be able to drive safely if your car is automatic (which means you don't need the left leg to shift gears) and if the injury doesn't change the way you sit in the seat.

You're Experiencing Pain

Pain that limits your mobility can affect your driving. As with braces, pain can cause you to move more slowly, which increases the risk of having an accident. If your pain comes and goes, it's still dangerous because a sudden, unexpected twinge can cause you to swerve, apply more pressure on the gas, or become distracted. All those reactions can cause problems on the road.

Recap

Anesthesia or other sedative medications can impair driving for at least 24 hours. If you’re taking opioid painkillers, you may not be able to drive until you stop using them. If any joint has been placed in a cast or brace, you should avoid driving even if it's a soft brace or bandage since your range of motion is still restricted. Don’t drive if you’re experiencing pain since it can lead you to become suddenly distracted or unable to move freely.

Doctor Advice

Speak with your doctor about whether or not you seem ready to start driving after surgery. If you received anesthesia, there should be specific restrictions related to the type of medication you were given. Your doctor should also advise you about whether driving is safe while taking any prescription medication.

However, despite what some people might tell you, you don't need an official medical "clearance" nor "release" to drive a car. Deciding whether or not you're ready to drive should not hinge on getting permission from your doctor.

While doctors can advise you about whether you're ready to operate a vehicle, their opinion doesn't hold any legal force.

Insurance Requirements

If you return to driving after an injury or surgery, you may need to check with your insurance company to ensure they're satisfied that you're able to drive safely. While many insurance companies may not cover you if you're in an accident while wearing a cast or brace, if you're taking pain killers, if you have an unhealed fracture, or if you've had "recent" surgery (they need to define for you what they deem "recent"), some will.

Legal Determination

The only way to legally confirm that you're capable of driving is to take a test with an appropriately trained licensing authority. This is typically arranged through your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or Department of Transportation (DOT).

Getting an evaluation from the DMV or DOT may be necessary if you've undergone a long-term recovery. If you drive for a living, you may need to take this step to prove you're able to return to work. It may also be necessary if you're permanently impaired and need to confirm that this injury won't affect your ability to drive.

Recap

There are no set rules about when you can return to driving after surgery or an injury. Your doctor can offer guidance on when you may be healed and no longer impaired by medication, but if you need an official approval that you're able to drive, you may need to arrange for an evaluation of your driving skills through your local DMV or DOT. You may also need to check with your insurance company about special driving restrictions after surgery or injuries.

Average Recovery Time

How soon you're able to drive after surgery varies from one person to the next. However, some studies have provided insight into which injuries may require the most attention when deciding whether you're ready to drive again.

In a review of 48 studies covering 20 common orthopedic procedures, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia made the following observations:

  • Right ankle fracture: Normal function was usually restored a week after the cast was removed.
  • Fracture in the right foot: It took an average of six weeks to have reasonable control when braking.
  • Surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL): It took four to six weeks for the right knee and two weeks for the left knee before patients were able to drive again.
  • Post-operative fractures of the right knee, ankle, thigh, or calf bone: Patients could reasonably return to driving after six weeks of weight-bearing therapy.
  • Below-the-elbow casts on the left arm: This added an average of 16.2 seconds to driving response time.
  • Cast extending above the left elbow: This added 22.2 seconds to response time.
  • Surgery for rotator cuff repair: It tool two to four months before mobility was reasonably restored.
  • Shoulder joint replacement: It took at least one to three months to return to 55% of pre-surgery capacity.
  • Spinal decompression: This required a two-week recovery time.
  • Cervical disc replacement: This typically required a six-week driving restriction.
  • Carpal tunnel surgery on the right or left wrist: Recovery took approximately nine days.
  • Lumbar fusion surgery: Patients could usually return to driving soon after the effects of the anesthesia wore off.

Summary

Everyone’s journey to recovery from surgery or orthopedic injury is unique. There are some general guidelines about how long it can take to return to driving after different types of surgeries, but in the end, you need to make a decision based on your personal needs and abilities.

However, you must follow specific restrictions if you’ve been given anesthesia or other medications. If you have limited movement of a body part or pain, you may need to avoid driving for an extended period of time. That's because slower response times and limited range of motion put you at risk for an accident.

Your doctor can advise you about when driving might be safe, but you should also consider guidelines from your insurance company. If you need to legally prove you’re capable of driving, you’ll need to have an evaluation done through your DMV or the DOT.

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