If you are experiencing back pain, you may be asking yourself whether it is wise to drive.

There are two important considerations when deciding whether to drive with back pain:

  • Am I fit to drive without being a risk to myself and others?
  • Will driving aggravate or worsen my pain?

Am I Fit to Drive?

The highway codes simply says “Make sure that you are fit to drive… don’t begin if you are tired, and minimize sleepiness with breaks, rest & stop if you’re tired and drink 2 cups of coffee”. It does go on to say “You MUST NOT drive under the influence of drugs or medicine”.

Some further questions I’d like you to ask yourself:

  1. Would I feel happy to do an emergency stop?
  2. Can I turn my neck comfortably to rotate and see properly?
  3. Am I able to concentrate and drive safely?
  4. Can I sit comfortably enough to control the vehicle?
  5. Will driving worsen my back pain?

If the answer to any of the above is no, or indicates that your back would get worse, then I suggest you don’t drive!

Caution: driving while taking painkillers or anti-inflammatory drugs

My take is that you should be extra cautious with using anti-inflammatories and strong painkillers or tranquilizers, especially if they make you feel drowsy.

Over the counter or even prescribed painkillers are stronger now than they once were, and along with drowsiness they doubtless slow your reactions.

Look after yourself if you’re in pain

I think the expression “stress makes us stupid” is all too true. Sometimes when we’re in pain we don’t think clearly and we need to be told to look after ourselves. I’m referring to the common situation where clients come in with acute pain and are not in a fit state to work or drive, yet expect to carry on as if they are in perfectly good health! Unfortunately, I have all too often treated clients who I don’t think should be driving. I once saw a patient with almost no movement in their neck in any direction; most unusual. As it turned out, he had viral meningitis and was still driving… I rest my case. Please be careful!

I’m all for keeping active and moving gently or even working if this is appropriate. The general guidelines for back pain are to keep active as much as possible but not if you risk injuring yourself further or risk hurting others because you’re not fit to work or drive.

Driving while tired

If you’re tired, I personally am not sure that coffee alone is really a sensible answer… To be safe, stop and rest; probably more than you think you should.

Learning to say “no!”

It’s often not wanting to let others down that forces us to keep going despite the pain. The two most common cases of this are going to work when you’re not fit and driving off to visit the relative or friend you promised to visit because you don’t want to upset them. This is, once again, crackers thinking. They would be completely understanding and want you to take care of yourself. They may even be offended that you thought that you would upset them by cancelling. Occasionally, of course, it’s a one-off event you’ll regret missing, a wedding perhaps, and then you’ll have to just go and make provisions to take it easy, rest out, find a chauffeur or just attend for a short while.

I do understand sometimes you may have to drive when you’d rather not – an important job interview or your daughter’s wedding – and no other form of transport is feasible, in which case please just be careful and give yourself longer to take breaks.

Driving Does Not Help our Backs

Driving is not healthy for our spines in many ways. When we drive, we are sitting static or immobile, and our backs are often at an unhealthy angle, which places increased pressure on our spines.

  • Driving increases the back angle and disc pressure
  • Staying static and immobile can ‘lock’ the muscles
  • It’s hard to move about so we can be even less mobile
  • The risk of DVT and heart disease increases with prolonged sitting
  • Driving is mentally tiring because we need to be alert and concentrate

The key is to reduce the time we spend driving.

Minimising Back Pain while Driving

Here are some tips for you to consider, which mostly apply to longer journeys (over an hour or so): 

  • Take breaks 
  • Give your yourself extra time by starting earlier to allow for the breaks.  
  • Find a safe relaxing place to stop and rest.  
  • Make sure to walk around, allowing the spine to decompress. 
  • Rest your back lying down – carry a foam sleeping mat you can roll out and rest on. If you are travelling in a van, you may be able to create a space inside for this. 
  • Plan some exercise to break up your driving. Find a nice park, garden or why not even a public swimming pool? 

Take the train 

I so often hear from clients it’s not possible, but in all seriousness, really do consider it for some longer journeys. Even if you drive sometimes and occasionally take the train, it can really help.  

Consider, as well, driving part of the way and then taking a train. I visited my sister in Yeovil last year for the day and taking the train entirely would have been 4 hours each way, so I drove 50 minutes to Basingstoke, jumped on the train and rested for an hour and a half reading a book; lovely! The day was far more relaxing and less tiring. And I even managed to fit in a snooze on the way back before the final short leg driving home. 

Advantages of train travel

  • You save your back! 
  • You can work 
  • You can rest, sleep or mentally relax and switch off 
  • You can get up and walk a little, move about or stand 
  • It can be cheaper sometimes 

Plan to stay overnight  

Rather than planning two long drives in a day, plan to perhaps stay overnight to rest and avoid long periods of driving. Lorry drivers have legal limits to driving times – we should consider this domestically as well. 

Cutting down your commute 

I have several clients with Chronic back pain who simply drive too much, doing 3 to 4 hours of commuting every day. I really do not think this is healthy long-term. 

If moving closer to your work or finding a job locally to where you live are not an option, please consider the following modifications: 

  • Stay over one or two nights a week 
  • Work from home one day a week 
  • Part train/part drive 
  • Make sure you have a sit-stand desk at work if you are sitting all day at work as well 

I have a firm belief that if you commute this amount of time every day, mostly when you get home you’ll be too tired to do much, or even to be good company. In all likelihood, you eat and go to sleep. I wonder if you wouldn’t have better quality of time at home if you can cut your commute down by staying over near work for even a couple of nights a week, and working from home perhaps one day? This allows you to: 

  • Work longer but sit less 
  • Have time to exercise or find a gym when you’ve stopped work 
  • Feel less tired at work 
  • Arrange to start work a little earlier or arrange to leave early to drive home when the traffic’s quieter 
  • Enjoy better quality time at home! 

Chiropractic and Back Pain 

If you suffer from back pain due to driving, or any other reason, please get in touch with us at the clinic for advice and to organise a treatment.