Recovering from a knee injury can be challenging for anyone. The hassle of getting around and keeping weight off the knee is not exactly easy. Many people find themselves hopping around the home, using crutches, or even relying on the temporary help of a wheelchair to prevent pain and allow the knee to heal. There are many ways to stay off the knee while walking around your home or work. You can even exercise around an injured knee. But what about driving?
Driving is an essential part of modern life. As an adult, you likely drive yourself to and from work and to take care of your own errands. But when you’ve got a knee injury, getting around becomes a whole new challenge. Is it safe to drive with your knee injury? Is it possible? And if it is safe and possible, how can you best drive with a knee injury to avoid pain and increase road safety? That is exactly what we’re here to talk about today.
Driving with a Knee Injury
Driving with a knee injury can be possible. It depends on the extent and nature of the injury, and which knee is injured. If your left knee is injured, you will need to treat it gingerly in the driver’s seat but may be able to safely immobilize it as you drive with your right foot. However, if your right knee is injured, you will need to decide carefully whether it’s safe and/or possible to drive.
Remember, driving involves a great deal of precision footwork, which is often achieved by flexing the knee as the ankle handles the fine motor control. You will need to be able to comfortably position your foot over both the gas and brake pedals and provide sufficient pressure (at responsive speeds) for safe driving. There are many knee injuries that don’t stop you from driving, but there’s also a serious risk if you try to drive when your knee isn’t ready.
It’s important to properly assess your knee’s capabilities and then take the necessary steps to enable driving while injured if you decide it is safe to drive.
Test Out Your Driving Position
When deciding whether you can drive with the knee, the first step is to test out your driving position. Without putting your car in gear, simply sit in the driver’s seat and see how your knee feels in the proper driving position. Place your left foot on the rise designated for it and your right foot in the center of the gas pedal. Consider where your leg would need to be to comfortably reach both the gas and brake pedals and to alternate between while applying pressure. With the car off, it’s safe to test pressing each pedal to see if this action causes pain or discomfort to your knee.
If even sitting in the driving position is uncomfortable to you, then you probably should not drive until the knee injury is further healed. This is true of left-knee injuries as well. Assume that pain in the left leg when sitting idle will distract you even if your right leg is good to work the pedals. However, if this position and pedal-pressing feel alright, then you might be able to drive during recovery after all. Provided your drives aren’t so long that you become stiff or sore.
Decide if It’s Safe for You to Drive
Now is the time to make your judgment call. Decide whether you think it’s safe to drive before proceeding any further. If there are signs that you should not drive, take the smart decision and make alternate transportation plans. It may be tedious to ask for a ride or an alternate driver, but it’s better than putting yourself at risk with a bum driving leg.
If you decide it’s safe to drive, take a roll around the block or local neighborhood to give yourself a test mile or two, just in case. If you’re still comfortable, then it’s likely safe to proceed with your driving-while-injured plans.
Adjust the Seat to Allow for Leg Extension
Once you’ve decided to drive, it’s time to make some adjustments. Consider how you might change the seat position, for example, to provide more comfort to your recovering leg. You might roll the seat back further than usual so your legs can stretch out. Pair this with pulling the steering wheel out further as well for better reach. Many driver’s seats also have directional tilt forward and back, along with up and down controls to help you get the optimal driving position for your body.
During knee injury recovery, these adjustments may help you create a more comfortable position for your leg so that you can drive more safely without the distraction of pain or aching in the knee as you operate the pedals.
Use Proper Foot Placement
Those of us who drive regularly often develop a unique posture when driving; whatever feels most comfortable. You may let your driving knee fall to the side or prop up your left leg on the seat in a casually lop-sided driving posture. When driving with a knee injury, avoid these postures of driving personality. Instead, do your best to sit like a mannequin of proper driving posture in the seat.
Align your hips forward, place your left leg in the designated off-space, and position your right leg so that the footrests comfortably in the center of the gas pedal. Do not let your leg or foot slouch to the side when foot-driving. This will help your knee stay in a comfortable and recovery-positive position as well.
Use Cruise Control Often
The biggest challenge to driving with a knee injury is pedal control. This makes cruise control your new best friend when it comes to driving comfortably, especially for long distances, while your knee recovers. Cruise control can allow you to adjust your leg and knee position, stretch out a little, move the knee, and take a break from precise pedal control.
Whether you’re commuting, road-tripping, or driving across town to your favorite restaurant, cruise control can be used to help extend your comfortable driving time with the injured knee. Just remember to stay alert and keep that foot ready to hit the brake or gas on a dime if necessary. If you remain alert, you can even use cruise control on boulevards that go a steady pace with few stoplights en-route.
Wear a Knee Brace to Drive
One of the best things you can do for driving with a knee injury is to wear a knee brace. A knee brace will provide you with the structure and support necessary to keep your knee in a recovery position while you drive. The brace holds your knee in proper alignment while you drive, which can significantly increase your driving stamina and reduce your post-driving pain with an injured knee. This is because the brace prevents the common unconscious knee slouch of many commuter drivers.
Consult with your doctor on the best type of knee brace for your injury and to allow you to drive comfortably and safely. There’s a good chance you will want a structured brace with a padded interior to provide support, alignment assistance, and comfort.
Take Frequent Breaks on Long Drives
Driving for long periods of time can put a lot of stress on a healthy knee, much less an injured one. Many people find that their knees stiffen up painfully after spending too much time bent and immobile. And hours of fine motor control through your injured knee can become agony as time passes. If you start to feel pain in one or both knees, it’s time to stop and walk around.
For injured drivers on a long route or road trip, make sure to stop every hour or two to stretch out your knee(s) and give yourself a quick break. Even if your schedule is short, it’s important to let your knee un-tense and relax during a long drive so that you are able to drive yourself safely home later on.
Massage and Exercise the Knee
When the knee starts to hurt from driving, even with short drives, you may find some relief with massage and light recovery exercises. Massage can help to relax the tight muscles or tendons that may be overly taut when compensating for the injury. Light recovery exercises help to stretch out muscles and tendons to release tension and disperse built-up lactic acid in the joint. Ask your doctor or physical therapist about the right massage and exercise techniques to use for your specific knee injury.
Partner with a Backup Driver and Ride Shotgun
Finally, be ready to pass the driving off to someone else. Even if you’re game for a commute or a quick trip for fast food, your knee may not be up for all-day driving. Have one or more people in the car with you for long trips or on-call for your daily driving needs. Be prepared to switch to the passenger’s seat where you can stretch out and relieve your knee pain more easily. The more pleasant you are about asking someone else to drive and giving up the driver’s seat, the more willing others will be to help you. That’s why a good attitude is essential for enjoyable injury recovery, for everyone involved.
Here at Cawley Physical Therapy, we know that recovering from a knee injury can be a pain. In more ways than one. With the right care routine and recovery exercises, you can get that knee back into shape for the expert driving control you need. Contact us today to find out more about how to recover fully and drive without pain after a knee injury.