Whether you’re planning to take a road trip this summer or you have a long regular commute to work, you know driving for long periods can be tough on your muscles and joints. This is especially true if you live with arthritis.
When you drive, you’re in a prolonged static position, which can cause stiffness and discomfort — particularly in your knees, shoulders, and low back. However, stretching before, during, and after your drive can have a significant impact in how you feel.
“If you have arthritis, you need to change positions or take a break and stretch out a little bit regularly,” says Leada Malek, PT, a licensed physical therapist in San Francisco, California. “Stretching relieves the sensation of tightness in the muscles. That tightness can otherwise increase compression on your joints, leading to stiffness and achiness.”
Think about how long you can typically drive before your arthritis symptoms start to worsen — and make a conscious effort to take breaks before that point (in other words, don’t wait for pain to appear before you stretch). If your joints begin to ache after 40 minutes, aim to take a break every 30 minutes if possible.
The following physical therapist-approved stretches can help you feel comfortable as you drive by gently stretching your muscles from head to toe. Unless you’re a passenger, be sure to park before you start stretching, so you can stay safe and focused on the road while driving.
Neck and Shoulders Stretches
Raise your shoulders toward your ears, then shrug down to release them. Next, inch them back by bringing your shoulder blades together. That’s one rep; do 10 to 15 reps.
“That’s inherently going to relieve tension in the neck, without compressing it,” says Malek. “If you have arthritis, it’s important to stretch your muscles without cranking on the joints that are aching.”
Prevent the Pain
Remember, your shoulders shouldn’t be elevated throughout your drive, because it can contribute to neck pain and tightness. Make sure your steering wheel isn’t too high, but at a level that allows your shoulders to remain relaxed while you drive.
To avoid inadvertently contributing to neck pain, rotate with your upper and lower back to make up for any limitations in your neck’s range of motion while you’re reversing the car or checking blind spots, advises the Cleveland Clinic. Try to park in ways that don’t require you to back up, if possible.
Reach your right arm across your body to the left. Hold your right arm with your left arm for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat with the opposite arm.
“This gentle, small tug stretches the back of your shoulders,” says Malek.
Prevent the Pain
To minimize the stress on your joints when driving, keep your hands below the “3 o’clock” and “9 o’clock” positions on the steering wheel, suggests the Mayo Clinic.
Lower Back and Mid-Back
Place your arms on the top of your steering wheel. Arch your back, and then collapse to curve forward. That’s one rep; do 10 to 15 reps.
“By having your arms on the wheel, you’ll feel a stretch through your upper back, too,” says Malek. “It’s a nice way to get a little bit of movement in the spine without having to leave the car.”
Prevent the Pain
When you set out on a long drive, increase the lumbar support in your car seat if possible, or add a small pillow along the natural curve in your low back.
“This helps distribute the pressure along the back and hips a little more evenly,” says Malek. “Otherwise, you can get compression on the nerves and discs in your back.”
Also adjust the chair so it’s elevated (your hips should be slightly higher than your knees) and leaning backward slightly at a 110-degree angle. This is the position of least pressure for the discs in your back, adds Malek.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Stand with your left foot about 12 inches in front of your right foot. Tuck your tailbone beneath you and slightly shift your weight forward over the left leg while keeping both feet pointed forward and your front leg slightly bent. Tighten your right glute and hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds. That’s one rep; do two to three reps total on each side. (This video shows how to do this stretch.)
“I would definitely do this in the middle of your drive to stretch those hip flexor muscles,” says Malek. “You get a stretch automatically without needing to enter a full lunge, which is helpful if you have arthritis.”
Prevent the Pain
On your next drive, slide the car seat forward so you have a slight bend in your knee when you’re using the gas pedal and brake pedal.
“A lot of people with arthritis in their back may have lumbar radiculopathy, and with that comes tingling down the sciatic nerve,” says Malek. “When your seat is a little closer to the pedals, that slight bend in the knee is more comfortable for the nerve.”
Try to get into and exit the car without twisting your back and hips. For instance, face away from inside of the car when getting in and then swivel in to face the steering wheel, per the Cleveland Clinic. To get out, swivel to face away before stepping out.
Place your hands against the outside of your car and stand with your left foot about 12 inches in front of your right foot. Lean forward by shifting your weight onto the left leg but try to keep the right heel against the ground and both feet pointed forward. You should feel the stretch in your upper calf.
Next, slightly bend your right knee to stretch the lower part of your calf. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. That’s one rep; do two reps. (This video shows how to do this stretch.)
“There are two parts of the calf muscle, and you stretch the upper part with a straight knee and the lower part with a bent knee,” says Malek.
Tennis Ball Roll
Take your shoes off and roll each foot over a tennis ball for two to three minutes as a gentle massage (it’s easiest to do this while sitting). Here are more genius ways to use a tennis ball to to ease arthritis pain.
Prevent the Pain
“I would also utilize cruise control when possible,” says Malek. When safe to use, cruise control can help you avoid flexing your foot for a prolonged period of time.
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5 Tips for Driving When You Have Arthritis or Back Problems. Cleveland Clinic. June 24, 2020. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/5-tips-for-driving-when-you-have-arthritis-or-back-problems.
Calf Stretching Exercises. Ansell Chiropractic Centre. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGcqGD88JPw&feature=youtu.be.
Exercises to prevent back pain: standing hip flexor stretch. Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. YouTube. June 24, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w_WRPqYZW4&feature=youtu.be.
Interview with Leada Malek, PT, a licensed physical therapist in San Francisco, California
Rheumatoid arthritis pain: Tips for protecting your joints. Mayo Clinic. June 24, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis/in-depth/arthritis/art-20047954.