Learn About Driving After an Orthopedic Injury or Surgery (2023)

One of the most common questions people ask after undergoing a medical procedure is "When can I start driving again?" When the procedure is related to an orthopedic injury, the concern is all the greater.

As an orthopedic injury heals, you may not be allowed to move the injured body part for a long period of time. This is especially true if you've had surgery or are nursing a serious fracture.

This article explains factors that affect when you can drive again after certain types of orthopedic surgeries and steps to recovery. It also discusses the role your doctor plays in helping you determine when you’re ready to get behind the wheel.

Learn About Driving After an Orthopedic Injury or Surgery (1)

When Can I Drive?

There are a number of factors you need to consider when determining if it's safe to start driving after surgery.

You've Been Given a Sedative

After taking any sedative medication, you shouldn't drive for at least 24 hours. This includes general anesthesia and conscious sedation. These medications don't put you totally out but do make you less aware and are used to block pain. With the anesthesia medications isoflurane, it's recommended that you wait even longer, from two to four days.

Driving restrictions may also be necessary while taking prescription opioids after a surgery. In fact, in some instances, you could be charged with "driving under the influence of drugs" (DUID) if you're pulled over by the police and have been using opioids.

What to Know About Driving and Anesthesia

Range of Motion Is Limited

With few exceptions, you cannot drive if you have a body joint that is in a hard brace or cast. This makes the joint immobilized or unable to bend at all. Even a joint that is partially restricted by a soft brace or bandage may restrict your range of motion too much to drive safely as researched in one study.

Being able to move your neck, spine, shoulder, elbow, writs, knees, ankles, and feet is essential. If your movements are impaired because of braces or stiffness, your reaction time will be much slower when trying to brake. Impaired movement can delay time to check mirrors or avoid an accident.

Exceptions may include an injury to your left knee, ankle, or foot. In those instances, you may be able to drive safely if your car is automatic (which means you don't need the left leg to shift gears) and if the injury doesn't change the way you sit in the seat.

How Range of Motion Is Measured

(Video) Driving after a knee injury or surgery

You're Experiencing Pain

Pain that limits your mobility can affect your driving. As with braces, pain can cause you to move more slowly, which increases the risk of having an accident. If your pain comes and goes, it's still dangerous because a sudden, unexpected twinge can cause you to swerve, apply more pressure on the gas, or become distracted. All those reactions can cause problems on the road.

Recap

Anesthesia or other sedative medications can impair driving for at least 24 hours. If you’re taking opioid painkillers, you may not be able to drive until you stop using them. If any joint has been placed in a cast or brace, you should avoid driving even if it's a soft brace or bandage since your range of motion is still restricted. Don’t drive if you’re experiencing pain since it can lead you to become suddenly distracted or unable to move freely.

Doctor Advice

Speak with your doctor about whether or not you seem ready to start driving after surgery. If you received anesthesia, there should be specific restrictions related to the type of medication you were given. Your doctor should also advise you about whether driving is safe while taking any prescription medication.

However, despite what some people might tell you, you don't need an official medical "clearance" nor "release" to drive a car. Deciding whether or not you're ready to drive should not hinge on getting permission from your doctor.

While doctors can advise you about whether you're ready to operate a vehicle, their opinion doesn't hold any legal force.

Insurance Requirements

If you return to driving after an injury or surgery, you may need to check with your insurance company to ensure they're satisfied that you're able to drive safely. While many insurance companies may not cover you if you're in an accident while wearing a cast or brace, if you're taking pain killers, if you have an unhealed fracture, or if you've had "recent" surgery (they need to define for you what they deem "recent"), some will.

Legal Determination

The only way to legally confirm that you're capable of driving is to take a test with an appropriately trained licensing authority. This is typically arranged through your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or Department of Transportation (DOT).

Getting an evaluation from the DMV or DOT may be necessary if you've undergone a long-term recovery. If you drive for a living, you may need to take this step to prove you're able to return to work. It may also be necessary if you're permanently impaired and need to confirm that this injury won't affect your ability to drive.

Recap

There are no set rules about when you can return to driving after surgery or an injury. Your doctor can offer guidance on when you may be healed and no longer impaired by medication, but if you need an official approval that you're able to drive, you may need to arrange for an evaluation of your driving skills through your local DMV or DOT. You may also need to check with your insurance company about special driving restrictions after surgery or injuries.

Average Recovery Time

How soon you're able to drive after surgery varies from one person to the next. However, some studies have provided insight into which injuries may require the most attention when deciding whether you're ready to drive again.

(Video) Driving after a foot or ankle injury

In a review of 48 studies covering 20 common orthopedic procedures, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia made the following observations:

  • Right ankle fracture: Normal function was usually restored a week after the cast was removed.
  • Fracture in the right foot: It took an average of six weeks to have reasonable control when braking.
  • Surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL): It took four to six weeks for the right knee and two weeks for the left knee before patients were able to drive again.
  • Post-operative fractures of the right knee, ankle, thigh, or calf bone: Patients could reasonably return to driving after six weeks of weight-bearing therapy.
  • Below-the-elbow casts on the left arm: This added an average of 16.2 seconds to driving response time.
  • Cast extending above the left elbow: This added 22.2 seconds to response time.
  • Surgery for rotator cuff repair: It tool two to four months before mobility was reasonably restored.
  • Shoulder joint replacement: It took at least one to three months to return to 55% of pre-surgery capacity.
  • Spinal decompression: This required a two-week recovery time.
  • Cervical disc replacement: This typically required a six-week driving restriction.
  • Carpal tunnel surgery on the right or left wrist: Recovery took approximately nine days.
  • Lumbar fusion surgery: Patients could usually return to driving soon after the effects of the anesthesia wore off.

Summary

Everyone’s journey to recovery from surgery or orthopedic injury is unique. There are some general guidelines about how long it can take to return to driving after different types of surgeries, but in the end, you need to make a decision based on your personal needs and abilities.

However, you must follow specific restrictions if you’ve been given anesthesia or other medications. If you have limited movement of a body part or pain, you may need to avoid driving for an extended period of time. That's because slower response times and limited range of motion put you at risk for an accident.

Your doctor can advise you about when driving might be safe, but you should also consider guidelines from your insurance company. If you need to legally prove you’re capable of driving, you’ll need to have an evaluation done through your DMV or the DOT.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. MacKenzie JS, Bitzer AM, Familiari F, Papalia R, McFarland EG. Driving after upper or lower extremity orthopaedic surgery.Joints. 2018;06(04):232-240. doi:10.1055/s-0039-1678562

    (Video) Driving after a shoulder injury or surgery

  2. Summerlin-Grady L, Austin PN, Gabaldon DA. Safe driving after propofol sedation.Journal of PeriAnesthesia Nursing. 2017;32(5):464-471. doi:0.1016/j.jopan.2016.01.005

  3. Pollard A, Marr R. Driving advice after isoflurane anaesthesia. Anaesthesia. 2014;69(9):1062-1063. doi:10.1111/anae.12809

  4. Pergolizzi, Jr, MD JV, Taylor, Jr, PhD R, Bisney, MA J, et al. Driving under the influence of opioids: What prescribers should know.J of Opioid Management. 2018;14(6):415-427. doi:10.5055/jom.2018.0474

  5. Latz D, Schiffner E, Schneppendahl J, et al. Doctor, when can I drive? — Range of functional ankle motion during driving.Foot and Ankle Surgery. 2020;26(8):924-929. doi. 10.1016/j.fas.2019.12.006

  6. Dammerer D, Waidmann C, Haid C, Thaler M, Krismer M, Liebensteiner MC. The effect of ankle brace type on braking response time-A randomised study.Injury. 2015;46(11):2278-2282. doi:10.1016/j.injury.2015.07.038

  7. Coyle PC, Schrack JA, Hicks GE. Pain energy model of mobility limitation in the older adult.Pain Medicine. 2018;19(8):1559-1569. doi:10.1093/pm/pnx239

  8. Dineen KK, DuBois JM. Between a rock and a hard place: can physicians prescribe opioids to treat pain adequately while avoiding legal sanction?Am J Law Med. 2016;42(1):7-52.

  9. Gandhi MJ, Freitas D, Lewis M, et al. Who should answer the question: “Can I drive with this plaster cast?" The Surgeon. 2014;12(1):26-31. doi:10.1016/j.surge.2013.05.006

  10. Disilvestro KJ, Santoro AJ, Tjoumakaris FP, Levicoff EA, Freedman KB. When can I drive after orthopaedic surgery? A systematic review. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2016;474(12):2557-2570. doi:10.1007/s11999-016-5007-9

Learn About Driving After an Orthopedic Injury or Surgery (2)

By Jonathan Cluett, MD
Jonathan Cluett, MD, is board-certified in orthopedic surgery. He served as assistant team physician to Chivas USA (Major League Soccer) and the United States men's and women's national soccer teams.

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(Video) Driving after rotator cuff surgery

FAQs

What are the rules about driving after surgery? ›

do not drive a car or any other vehicle, or a bicycle, for 48 hours after your anaesthetic. After this time you need to consider whether your wound or any pain may prevent you from driving. An indication of whether you are able to drive safely is if you are able to perform an emergency stop comfortably.

How long after leg surgery can you drive? ›

Based on these studies, among others, the recommendation for safe return to driving following surgical treatment of lower extremity fractures is 6 to 9 weeks.

When can I drive after Orthopaedic surgery a systematic review? ›

The collected survey data suggest patients resumed driving 1 month after right-sided and left-sided TKAs. Patients who had THA reported returning to driving between 6 days and 3 months postoperatively.

How long after tibia surgery can I drive? ›

Post-operative fractures of the right knee, ankle, thigh, or calf bone: Patients could reasonably return to driving after six weeks of weight-bearing therapy.

How long after a knee replacement can you drive an automatic car? ›

Left total knee replacement: If you are not on narcotic medication, you may be able to drive an automatic transmission vehicle in as little as 2 weeks. With a manual transmission vehicle, it will take you at least a few weeks longer before your left leg is strong enough to operate the clutch.

What medical conditions affect car insurance? ›

What are the notifiable medical conditions for car insurance?
  • Diabetes (especially if you're taking insulin)
  • Sleep apnoea.
  • Fainting spells.
  • A heart condition.
  • Epilepsy.
  • Strokes.
  • Glaucoma.
5 days ago

Why can you not drive for 2 weeks after surgery? ›

If your doctor tells you not to get behind the wheel -- whether it's for 2 weeks or 2 months -- it's for a good reason. Your reaction time may be slower and you could get into an accident.

Do you need to inform car insurance after surgery? ›

Your insurance company should always be informed about your operation. Some companies will not insure you for up to 4 weeks after an oesophagectomy, so it is important to understand what your policy says.

How soon can I drive after hip surgery? ›

If surgery was performed on your left leg, assuming you don't drive a manual transmission vehicle you can start driving once off narcotic pain medication. If surgery was performed on your right leg, you can typically resume driving between 3-4 weeks after surgery.

Can I drive 4 weeks after hip replacement? ›

After hip replacement surgery, patients likely want to resume normal activities like driving. The preliminary results of a new study suggest they may be able to do just that. This study showed that most patients were ready to return to driving four weeks after total hip replacement surgery.

Can you drive with a post op shoe? ›

Conclusions. From our findings, we recommend driving abstinence for a minimum of 6 weeks postoperatively when using a surgical shoe after bunionectomy. However, patients should have sufficient recovery, exercise, and training before resuming driving a car, because safety is always a priority.

Can you drive with a cast on your left foot? ›

Do not drive if you have a splint, cast, orthopaedic boot, or knee brace/immobilizer on your right lower extremity (if driving a vehicle with an automatic transmission) or on either lower extremity (if driving a vehicle with a manual transmission).

How long does it take for a fractured tibia bone to heal? ›

Most tibial shaft fractures take 4 to 6 months to heal completely. Some take even longer, especially if the fracture was open or broken into several pieces or if the patients uses tobacco products.

How long after a femur fracture can I drive? ›

Driving: Once you have been told it is safe to place full weight through your operated hip you should wait a minimum of six weeks before you drive again.

How do you drive with crutches? ›

Using Crutches: Getting in and out of a vehicle - YouTube

Do you need to inform car insurance after surgery? ›

Your insurance company should always be informed about your operation. Some companies will not insure you for up to 4 weeks after an oesophagectomy, so it is important to understand what your policy says.

How long do you have to wait to drive after anesthesia? ›

Refrain from driving for the first 24 to 48 hours after receiving anesthesia. In fact, for the first day, you should refrain from many things in addition to driving such as operating machinery, cooking, or doing any task that could obviously lead to injury, including handling a kitchen knife.

What to do if you have no one to drive you home after surgery? ›

Offer suggestions for an escort.

Ask if the patient might have a neighbor or religious organization that would assist, she says. "Lots of churches have people on call to help with rides," Ogg says. "They might also be able to stay overnight as a caregiver." A private duty nurse might be another option, she adds.

When is it safe to drive after anesthesia? ›

Patients are currently advised to refrain from driving motor vehicles or using public transportation unescorted for a 24 hour period if they undergo any minor ambulatory surgical procedure with monitored anesthesia care (MAC).

Videos

1. When Can I Drive After Total Hip Or Knee Replacement
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2. How to Get in a Car After Knee Surgery
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3. Driving After a Knee Replacement: When is it Safe?
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4. When can I drive after my shoulder surgery?
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5. Driving After Distal Radial Fractures
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6. Getting Out of the Car After Surgery | Nuffield Health
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