How to minimise and manage discomfort when driving
It’s a well-known fact that driving can cause or aggravate pain. Below are some of the seat positioning and pain management strategies that can help to reduce and manage discomfort when driving.
Minimising the Discomfort
The Driver’s Seat:
The easiest place to start is with your car seat. A comfortable seat is crucial for avoiding pain whilst driving.
Typically, when buying a car, the more adaptable positioning there is for the seat, the better outcome for the driver. Try to ensure your car has an adjustable seat and steering wheel heights, seat tilt, lumbar support, and the correct seat cushion length.
What is the Correct Seat Height?
Your hips should be elevated to at least the same height as your knees. Once you have reached this height you need to ensure you have enough head space.
If you find yourself slouching at all then your car is not high enough for you. Slumping forward will cause strain of the muscles and ligaments, which increases pressure on the spinal discs.
If your car seat is unable to adjust high enough then a car seat cushion can be purchased to achieve the correct posture. Cushions can also decrease the vibration of the car, which has be known to contribute to injuries.
Seat Cushion Length:
Slumping can also be caused by the incorrect seat length. This happens when the cushion is longer than the length of your thigh. The correct length cushion should provide you with a small gap between the back of your knee and the very edge of the seat. This gap is also necessary for the health of your knees and maintaining circulation throughout the body.
Your shoulder blades should stay against the seat with your hands comfortably on the steering wheel, maintaining a small bend whilst driving.
Keeping your back in place, if you do straighten your elbows, your wrist should be able to bend over the top of the wheel. With the seat in this position, you should be able to completely depress all pedals without moving your back away from the seat.
It’s also important that your knees maintain a slight bend, as full extension can cause knee pain. The bend should be approximately 20-30 degrees.
Your feet should be relaxed, with the right foot easily able to transition between the accelerator and brake. It’s also best that your left foot stays on the footrest when not using the clutch, as this increases the support for your spine whilst driving.
Tilt of the Seat Back:
The driver should be in an upright position, with the seat angle between 100-110 to decrease the pressure on the discs in your lower back.
Most new cars have an adjustable lumbar support. This should be placed in the curve of your lower back, with the lowest part of the support placed just touching the top of your pelvis.
The amount of curve needed should be the equivalent of a placing your hand between your back and the seat. It should comfortably fill the gap at your lower spine.
If your car is not fitted with lumbar support, a rolled up towel can be used. Otherwise a lumbar support attachment can be purchased, these are foam rolls which are available in many sizes. Trial and error may be needed to find the correct one for your body and car.
Supporting the Upper Spine and Rib Cage:
The seat should reach the height of your shoulders. However if it is slightly higher or lower, but you can still rest comfortably on it, this should be fine in the majority of cases.
Headrests should meet the back of your head when sitting in an upright position. The upright position is best checked by a friend, but alternatively you can check by ensuring that your ear lobe is in line with the collar bone and neck muscles.
Steering Wheel Height:
You should have a clear view out the windscreen, and of the dashboard. Your hands should be placed just below the level of your shoulders.
NOTE: Be sure to adjust all mirrors after altering your seat, as it is possible that they no longer provide optimal visibility.
If any of this advice is uncomfortable for your specific circumstances or you are unsure about what changes you need to make with your car for optimal posture and comfort, then you can get an individual assessment and expert advice for an occupational therapist to help you buy or modify your seat as needed.
Pain Management Strategies for Drivers/Passengers:
We advise that anyone with significant pain should seek the advice of the GP to ensure they are fit to drive and that any medication currently prescribed does not impede their ability to safely drive on the road.
One of the key recommendations for those who are safe to drive, but experience pain, is to carefully plan their trip ahead of time.
The current recommendations are that you shouldn’t drive longer than one hour without a break. After prolonged sitting, the spinal discs need time to rest and recover.
Current research shows that the discs can make a 50% recovery with 2 minutes of standing. However full recovery of the discs after prolonged sitting can take up to 40 minutes to occur.
To keep the discs well nourished and in good condition, frequent postural changes are ideal during the drive. Sitting in a static position for too long quickly becomes uncomfortable, even with optimal seat positioning.
Research has also indicated that heavy lifting should never be undertaken after prolonged sitting. This is particularly relevant for those who undertake regular/frequent occupational driving. Time should always be taken prior to manual handling, ideally by standing or walking. A short period of rest, even for a couple of minutes (such as making a phone call, or getting a drink) can better prepare the back for manual handling.
For those with pre-existing pain, management strategies in addition to the above advice are also advised. For example:
- the application of heat or ice packs prior to driving – in general, heat is best for muscle spasm and tension; cold for inflammation.
- pain/anti-inflammatory medication prior to driving
- deep breathing or listening to music/podcasts.
If you are in too much pain, you should not be driving and we advise that you seek medical help and treatment from your GP and other health care professionals.
Whilst you may believe you are fit to drive, research shows that response time and focus can be significantly affected by high pain levels. Consider using alternate modes of transport where possible, or have someone else drive for you.
There are also further can modifications which can be made to the car for those with pain, such as enlarged side mirrors to reduce the need for neck rotation, swivel seats to assist getting in/out of the vehicle, etc. For a comprehensive list please visit the Pain Australia website.