Most of us who have driven vehicles know that driving can be stressful. Between the traffic, road rage, and worrying about running late, not every drive on the highway is a walk in the park. To make matters worse, driving can cause back, neck, and even wrist and knee pain for many people. Oftentimes, this is a result of your posture while driving and the way you sit in your car, so it is important to learn what works for your body and adapt. What works for another driver might not necessarily be right for you, so make sure you do not ignore those painful signals when you notice them. At ProFysio Physical Therapy, we help our patients find freedom from body pain in all areas, so we have broken down some of the most common areas where drivers experience pain and given some tips on how to combat it:
Preventing Back Pain While Driving
By nature, driving involves sitting in one position for a long period of time. This stiffens up your back muscles, leads to achiness, and even muscle spasms. For starters, it is never good to drive for more than two hours without taking at least a fifteen-minute break. If you know you are prone to back pain or struggle with back issues, it might be best to take a break every 30-60 minutes. Some other ways you can prevent back pain while driving include:
- Notice any discomfort as soon as you begin driving and work to adjust it
We understand that there is probably a lot on your mind many days that you drive, so it can be easy to brush off body pain. However, you want to make sure that you listen to your body as soon as it sends you a pain signal because if you ignore it, it is only going to get worse, especially if you are making a long road trip. Some simple adjustments can go a long way in preventing these problems from taking hold during your trip.
For example, keeping your back pockets empty will prevent your wallet, phone, and other items from taking your spine out of alignment. Sitting up straight with your knees slightly higher than your hips and keeping your chin pulled in will allow your head to sit straight on top of your spine.
You should also make sure you are at a comfortable distance from the steering wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends sitting with your breastbone at least 10 inches from the steering wheel and keeping your hands on the wheel at 9 and 3 o’clock. Be sure to avoid sitting too far away, as this can force you to reach too far for the wheel and place more stress on the spine, neck, shoulder, and wrists.
Lastly, you should keep your back aligned against the back of your seat when you begin your drive. This will better support the contour of the inward curve in the lower back and the seat.
- Keep your ride smooth
Bumpy cars can be fun on the road, but they are not exactly ideal for spinal health. For a smoother ride, you can ride in a passenger car instead of an SUV or pickup, replace work shocks to limit bouncing in the car, replace work tires to reduce vibration or shaking, and sit on a car seat pillow to give more padding between you and the road.
- Move around periodically
Even if you cannot get out of the vehicle, if you are able to shift around periodically, your body will thank you. Even minor movements or a few seconds of moving and stretching will be healthier than sitting completely still. Adjust your seat and change your position every 15-20 minutes if you can. Also, pump your ankles to keep the blood flowing and to provide a stretch in your hamstring muscles.
- Try cold or heat therapy
Applying cold or heat therapy can be a great way to take the pain away from being on the road. Cold therapy can help reduce inflammation and swelling, while heat therapy can create better blood flow and relax the muscles. It is important to note that ice or heat should only be applied for 15-20 minutes at a time. This will give your skin the chance to recover for a few hours before the next application.
Preventing Neck Pain While Driving
When you focus intensely on driving, the additional pressure can add to your neck pain, especially if you already have ongoing neck issues. It is essential to adjust your position before you begin driving and to change the way you drive. To avoid neck pain, the best angle for the back of your seat should be at 100 degrees. Other tips that will help you prevent neck pain while driving include:
- Supporting your head
To make sure your head is supported, adjust your headrest so it touches the middle part of the back of your head. This will also provide additional support to your lower back.
- Adjusting your mirrors
It might seem like no big deal, but small movements can make a big difference when it comes to body pain. Give yourself the best field of vision possible so that you do not have to move your head around in an uncomfortable way. You can achieve this by adjusting your mirrors properly.
- Avoiding straining your eyes
If you find yourself straining your eyes while driving, it might be time to have your vision checked. Not only is driving with impaired vision dangerous, but it can also have a negative impact on your eyes and neck. When you cannot see well, you will naturally move your neck forward, which will put pressure on your neck muscles.
Another possibility if you cannot see the road well is that the windshield is not clean enough. Make sure your windshield is wiped well enough for you to see through it. Also, if you are driving in the sun, you can protect your vision by wearing sunglasses with at least 99% UV protection, which will have a ripple effect and protect the rest of your body as well.
- Taking advantage of cruise control
If your car has cruise control capabilities, don’t be afraid to take advantage of them. This will take some of the pressure off your neck and the rest of the body, and is especially useful for long road trips.
Preventing Wrist Pain While Driving
Driving for elongated periods of time can cause irritation in the joints of the wrists that can lead to stress fractures in the long run. If you do not fix unhealthy driving habits that lead to wrist pain, you might be dealing with chronic pain. Holding the wheel the wrong way can also contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome, as can repeated, prolonged gripping of anything.
To prevent this kind of pain, we recommend switching the hand you drive with. Even if it is not your dominant hand, your wrists will benefit from you periodically using your left and then your right hand. You should also keep your hand in alignment with your elbow and your wrist straight.
It is never a good idea to talk on your cell phone while driving, but if you needed one more reason to stop this habit, it is a large contributor to wrist pain. When you talk on the phone and drive, you tend to leave your wrists bent, which can also increase your risk of carpal tunnel.
If you need to talk on the phone while you drive, it is safer for your wrists and for yourself and other drivers on the road to connect a Bluetooth device to your car. If you are having extreme struggles when driving, we recommend using wrist splints, which are braces that look like fingerless gloves. They will stabilize your wrist, minimize pressure on the median nerve, and give you a period of relative rest from movements that irritate the wrist.
Preventing Knee Pain While Driving
If you feel like you put a lot of wear and tear on your knees when driving, you are not alone. In fact, some call this phenomenon “gas pedal knee.” This is quite a common feeling because your knees remain bent while driving and have limited mobility. For these reasons, it is important to keep the knees aligned with the body while driving and prevent it from dropping to the side while you drive.
Dropping your knees to the side can aggravate the pelvis. Not only does this cause knee pain, but it also contributes to pain in the lower back, hip, knee, and foot. Making these adjustments and being mindful of the tips above will also help to alleviate knee pain, but for some people, it is simply unavoidable. That is why our team can recommend some individualized knee exercises to help strengthen the area so you experience less pain in the future. Some of the best knee exercises for this purpose include:
- Straight leg raises
One of the best parts about straight leg raises is that they put little to no pressure on the knees. They work to strengthen the quadriceps, which are the muscles in the front of your thigh, and this will take some of the pressure off your knees. To do a straight leg raise, lie flat with one knee bent and one leg straight, tighten the abs, and raise the straightened leg off the floor. Next, tighten the muscle on top of your thigh as you slowly lift your leg. Be sure to keep your knee straight while you do this. Lastly, lower the leg and repeat several times on each side.
- Wall squats
Wall squats are beneficial for the knees and are also safe for the area. The body is in a fixed position with added support from the wall, which takes the pressure off the knees while working to build the surrounding areas. The goal of a wall squat is to build strength and stability in the muscles and other soft tissues that support the knee joint, so if you are experiencing knee pain while driving, this could be a great exercise for you. To do a wall squat, press your back against a wall and spread your feet to keep them in line with your shoulders. Next, bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor. The pelvis and back should be against the wall. Stay in the position for about 5-10 seconds and repeat.
- Calf raises
The calf muscle, the hamstring muscle, and the muscle in the back of your knee are intertwined. That is why strengthening the calf muscle will greatly benefit the hamstrings and give your knee greater support and stability. Plus, it is one of the simplest exercises you can do. To do a calf raise, simply stand up straight and push through the balls of your feet. Raise your heel until you are standing on your toes. Next, lower slowly and repeat.
The team at ProFysio Physical Therapy is dedicated to keeping your body free from pain as much as possible. For more tips like this, give us a call at (732) 812-5200 or contact us online.