Driving after orthopaedic surgery
Orthopaedic surgery will impact your physical and psychological ability to drive comfortably.
While there is no regulation that covers driving and surgery specifically, a safe return to driving depends largely on the procedure you have had, your individual driving ability and your recommended rehabilitation.
Goals to aim for prior to returning to driving after orthopaedic surgery:
- A pain-free driving experience.
- No requirement for a leg or arm splint to protect your limb from pain or injury, or to allow recovery.
- Shoulder range of motion equivalent to 90 degrees of forwarding flexion and 90 degrees of abduction (general guide).
- Elbow movement equivalent to near full extension.
- Normal function of both hands and wrists.
- Your upper limb strength should be almost equal to the other side and not compromised by pain, impingement or poor nerve/muscle function.
- Once your arm is strong enough and has enough range of motion to physically go through the motions of driving, it is also important to consider your reaction time. Is it compromised in any way?
- Your lower limb should not be in a cast or splint and you should not still be requiring crutches to mobilise.
- Your lower limb should not be compromised by pain or poor nerve/muscle function.
- As with most return to activity advice, it is best to follow a graduated return, increasing the duration and intensity, as comfort allows.
Things to consider before driving after orthopaedic surgery:
- Will the act of driving impact or impair the healing process and perhaps compromise the final outcome of my surgery?
- Am I safe to drive? (i.e. Can I safely control my vehicle in an emergency?)
- Am I capable of driving? (i.e. Do I have a temporary splint or disability that prevents me from driving?)
- Is my judgement impaired? (i.e. Am I taking strong pain-relieving medications that may interfere with my reaction time or judgement?)
A safe return to driving after orthopaedic surgery depends on:
- What you drive (automatic / manual / power steering)
- The conditions you are driving in (bad weather/ night/ poor roads)
- How long the journey will be
- The medications you are taking
- The pain you are experiencing
- The function you have lost
- Your judgement and capacity to drive
Driving and Opioids
- Immediately after your operation you will likely be taking pain-relieving medications that are sedatives (similar to alcohol).
- These medications can interfere with your concentration, judgment and reaction time.
- You should not drive while you are taking these medications.
Testing your capacity to drive after orthopaedic surgery
- Before attempting to drive on public roads, take your car to an empty car park and practise driving in a safe and controlled environment.
- Once you can safely and repeatedly perform all of the emergency stop procedures and all the manoeuvres necessary for driving, you may consider returning to driving.
Please note, your normal car insurer may not cover you if:
- you are involved in an accident and you are wearing a cast or a brace.
- you are taking strong pain-relieving medications, such as sedatives that may impair your concentration or judgement.
- you have had a fracture (broken bone) & there is recent x-ray evidence the break has not healed.
- you have had "recent surgery".
Australian requirements for driving:
- You must hold a valid drivers licence for the vehicle you plan to drive.
- You must be able to control your vehicle in an emergency situation.
- You should be able to confidently stand up in a court of law and testify to your capacity to drive.
The definition of "recent surgery" is not clearly defined. If unsure, contact your car insurer for clarification. Additional information can be found on Pubmed – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23450009
Guidelines for specific types of surgery
Driving After Shoulder Replacement Surgery
- The main consideration following shoulder replacement surgery is the healing of the tendons, which are normally cut to gain access to the joint.
- In general, tendon healing takes 6-8 weeks and gets progressively stronger to the 3-month mark.
- Returning to driving earlier than 8 weeks may compromise your surgery.
- As a guide, it will be at least 8-10 weeks before you will be able to drive and then a gradual increase in activity/ driving can be expected.
- Examples are “Carpal tunnel decompression”. Read our comprehensive guide to driving after carpal tunnel surgery
- It is usually sensible to wait until the wound has healed to prevent the sutures from loosening and the wound opening.
- This normally takes 10-14 days.
- The scar may remain painful for 6-8 weeks and may cause pain when you try and drive.
- Returning to driving depends on what you drive (power steering, gear changing).
- Most people start gentle driving around 2 weeks following surgery.
Related: Flying after surgery
- If you have had key-hole surgery where no tendon or ligaments have needed repair, immediate movement is encouraged and you can drive once physically able. On average most people return to driving around 4 weeks following surgery.
- If a ligament or tendon has been repaired, you need to wait until the tendon/ ligament has healed – normally around 8-10 weeks with a graduated increase in activity.
- Returning to driving early after tendon surgery may compromise your outcome.
Ask Dr McLean to clarify your restrictions prior to surgery to avoid disappointment.