When can you drive after shoulder surgery?

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

Shoulder pain might make weights or other overhead sports difficult, but that pain shouldn't prevent all exercise.

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

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

Concerns with driving after shoulder or upper extremity 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:Wrist injury
• 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.

When do you think it is safe to drive after different injuries or surgeries? How can we best gauge when it is safe? Do you have experience with these decisions? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

Make sure to read part 2 of this series – When can you drive after knee or ankle surgery?

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

29 Responses to When can you drive after shoulder surgery?

  1. My Dr. Had it my script, no driving! He would not release me until I could do certain movements with my arm. Then I got to drive in town 2 miles back and forth to work and to the store and its all on one road. I didn’t get to drive long distances and city driving for about 5 months. He said you can drive one handed but if someone serves at you , you are going to take that sore arm and instinct is going to kick in and you will grab the wheel you will feel pain and what you will do is jerk the wheel and can cause a bigger accident or death to you or someone. I chose to not drive, I also had most of my physical therapy at home so I didn’t have to beg for rides.

  2. 2 weeks after rotator cuff surgery, after test driving over a couple of hours :
    1) At best I can grip and steady the steering wheel with the hand of my recovering arm. Gripping itself with fingers is not a problem–but any force (besides gripping) is immediately transferred to the shoulder. So I can’t apply any significant force to the steering wheel; I can only do very minor support, which means only very light steering on straight roads (and I can do that better with my knees). And I expect this will be true for a number of weeks after the immobilizer is off: I won’t recover anything near full strength for, what, 4-6 months?
    2) If I need to swerve, i can do that to some extent with my good hand and arm. But if I need to turn the wheel more than one-sixth of a rotation, I want my bad hand off the wheel lest it get caught in the spokes. it’s not a question of using the bad arm to help swerve, it can’t. And again that will probably be true for quite awhile after the immobilizer is off.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. Generally my patients have gotten back to driving 4-6 weeks after rotator cuff repair, once they are out of the sling and have adequate strength. Recovery of complete strength of the shoulder can take many months, as you mention.

  3. I had rotator surgery with mini open and arthroscopic.Some days I have pain when waking up in morning and some days I dont. It has been 4 weeks since surgery. When can I expect the pain to subside? Should I maintain anti-inflammatories?

    • I’d ask your doctor about the medications. Patients often have pain as they work to regain strength and motion, which can take a while. In my experience, most of the pain has resolved within 2-4 weeks.

  4. I had a large tear in my dominant left arm’s rotator cuff, repaired on March 27. The two weekends and one week of getting rides, were a mixed blessing. I found myself riding with a driver arguing on the phone for most of the distance. I’d rather take my chances driving myself. My surgeon cited TN driver codes which I’ve not been able to find. My wife barely speaks to me, for taking the sling off for brief periods. I almost talked my mom into assisting me in trading my 5 year old car in, as it is the stick shift of my current car, which seems less than safe. Please advise

    • I know it is a difficult situation to rely n others to drive, but orthopaedic surgeons are concerned with the lack of motion and strength patients have after rotator cuff surgeries. I would stick to what your orthopaedic surgeon recommended.

    • It often depends on what is performed arthroscopically – repair vs. debridement – and how long the surgeon wants the patient to wear the sling or brace.

  5. Hello Dr,can you please tell me if its possible to drive with a full thickness tear in my right shoulder.i had 2 rotary cuff repair, one in 2007 and one in 2009, im book for a 3rd surgery due to tear of the cuff again.iv bin assess for benefits due to me not be able to work,because i drive a car which isnt adapted,my car is a 2012 VOLKSWAGEN TIGUAN,so no hand brakes its power stering and crouse controle with arm rest which makes it easier, your respond will greatly appreciated.

    • Generally it is possible for a patient to drive but not always recommended. I’d check with your orthopaedic surgeon.

  6. I just had a full rotator cuff surgery 2 1/2 weeks ago and am in a sling until September 11 but my Doctor has already released me to drive and to work and my job is making me come back. This is a workers comp issue and I do not feel that I am safe to drive but if I refuse I do not get paid, but if I get in an accident I am responsible? What gives. I do not feel ready to drive or work for that matter. I am stuck here.

    • I cannot give you specific advice because I am not your doctor. I don’t recommend that my patients drive at least until they are out of the sling and longer if they struggle with strength or range of motion.

  7. Yrs or no is it illegal to drive in sling
    I on work comp they want me go work if in sling not aloud drive how I go , I live alone

    • I would check with your doctor for specific advice, but I cannot imagine a police officer would accept it if someone was in an accident driving in a sling.

  8. I had arthroscopic subachromial decrompession removing calcium deposits and some scar tissue. I tried sitting in my car yesterday and seeing how comfortable I was 11 days after the surgery and I must say I’m not ready yet. I can only lift my arm about 15% of the way up to the front and haven’t really had much Improvement recently. I have almost full ROM passively bit actively almost nothing. Really hoping it improves and I can get back to work as the commute means I need the car.

  9. I had surgery to repair 2 tears in rotator cuff, cleaned arthritis around ac joint, and carpal tunnel surgery, same arm so had all done at same time. I don’t take pain meds but arm is in sling. Where I live there is no mass transit, no taxis etc.. Wld driving to store, occasionally be OK? Legal?

  10. Hi I have the same question I had arm surgery a week and half, they changed me to a hard cast three days ago, I haven’t drive for the past 3 weeks. Dr. Don’t want me to use my left arm at all. Im only allowed to move fingers, make fist and keep my arm elevated but yet since Im on workers Compensation he said Im allowed to work and drive 32 miles each way on a busy highway. Someone said I might get a ticket if police sees me. But haven’t been able to comfirm.

  11. my husband is having surgery on his right shoulder. he has sbuscapularis tear, biceps tendon tear, labrial tear and associated mutiple rotor cuff tendinitis. Surgery is Friday, and he thinks he’s going to drive to new jersey in 6 days. (almost a 2 hours ) I can’t drive, because he has motion sickness also. you just can’t tell him. Help!!!

  12. I am having my surgery soon. I drive an hour to work and of course an hour home. I am nervous and about driving. I live in Maine and go up a lot of hills and on windy days it is hard to control the car with both hands. I have no family around to help and no friends as I moved to the area recently. I used up my sick time because I have been fighting with workers comp and now am using Family medical leave. they only gave me three days a month to take unpaid counting the doctors appointments. any advise on what I can expect. She is going to sever the tear totally if it isn’t already and attach it lower in my arm.

  13. I had arthroscopic labrum repair and bank art procedure 6 weeks ago. I kept my brace on for 3 was as per physio instructions but surgeon now said I should have kept it on for 6 weeks!! Other physio advice was that I could consider driving after 6 weeks, can’t wait as being cooped up in the house drives me crazy, especially with small kids stuck at home too!! Can’t wait for the freedom of being able to drive, but was advised that attempting to do so before 6 weeks would cancel my insurance & be a risk of damaging my shoulder

  14. I am just starting strength training after out of sling 3-30-16 from Right rotator cul
    Cuff repair in 2-10-16 my job is in home nurse lots of driving and weighting by hand all paper work see MD may 3rd
    Do you think I would be able to go to work without restrictions?

Leave a reply

Please note: I cannot and will not provide specific medical information within these comments, just as I won't anywhere else. Also, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, off-topic, or spam. If you have questions, please read My Comments Policy.

david-headshot I am an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina.

On this blog, on my podcast, and in articles for numerous publications and in media interviews, I aim to provide you leading commentary and education on injury treatment and prevention to keep you performing at your best! Learn more about me >>


I'm excited to help with information and interviews for print, radio, television, and online media. Media information >>


Writing I write articles and columns for a number of publications and organizations. Writing information >>
Sports Medicine Simplified: A Glossary of Sports Injuries, Treatments, Prevention and Much More

Learn more about the glossary >>
© 2016 Dr. David Geier Enterprises, LLC

Site Designed by Launch Yourself