One of the most common questions I get from patients after surgery concerns driving. “When can I drive after surgery?” If you don’t ask that question, you should.

Many people often assume they can drive to work in the days after surgery. I realize you don’t want to burden other family members or friends. I also realize that you might already be feeling better. But if you have to keep your arm in a sling, or if you are still taking narcotics, is a really safe for you to drive?

In the first of a two-post series on driving after surgery, I want to discuss driving after shoulder, elbow, hand or wrist surgery. In both posts, I will discuss some of the research and recommendations from an article recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Legal concerns when you drive after surgery

If you ask multiple surgeons when you can drive after different surgeries, you might be surprised that you get a variety of answers. There’s often confusion about how to determine when a patient can safely drive. By clearing the patient to drive, a surgeon might worry that he would be liable for any injuries or damages from an accident caused by the patient.

Ultimately, insurance companies and law enforcement agencies place the responsibility of the decision to drive on the patient. As the authors of the driving study point out, patients very frequently underestimate the impairment caused by any kind of arm immobilization.

Also read:
Tips to ensure (hopefully) a successful outcome after surgery

Man driving in car
Concerns with driving after shoulder, elbow or wrist surgery

Believe me, I have heard countless times from my patients that they can drive with one hand, so they would have no problem driving with one arm in a sling. I always ask how they plan to swerve the car if they need to suddenly. Honestly, I drive one-handed frequently, but I can grab the wheel immediately if I have to.

The authors point out some of the effects of arm immobilization on driving:
• Healthy volunteer drivers wearing a sling on their shoulders were involved in many more motor vehicle accidents compared to volunteers without them on a simulated course.
• Immobilization of either arm in a splint greatly impaired the driving ability of those healthy volunteers.

Authors’ recommendations for driving after shoulder, elbow, wrist or hand surgery

Generally the following patients should not drive:
• Patients wearing slings on either arm
• Patients in above-elbow splints on either arm
• Patients in below-elbow splints on the left arm

Please note that in no way is this post specific medical advice for anyone. If you have suffered a shoulder, elbow, hand or wrist injury or have recently undergone any shoulder or upper extremity surgery, you should definitely ask your orthopaedic surgeon about when it is safe for you to drive.

Make sure to read part 2 of this series – When can you drive after knee or ankle surgery?
Wrist injury that makes it difficult to drive after surgery

Marecek GS, Schafer MF. Driving after orthopaedic surgery. J Am Acad Orthop Surg 2013;21:696-706.