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.

4 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.

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