If you’re vaccinated and eager for a change of scenery after more than a year of staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be itching to travel outside of your town. Naturally, a road trip is top of mind for many — especially for those who are still hesitant to fly or who want a more local, convenient vacation. That said, “convenient” and “arthritis” often don’t go together. As anyone with joint pain and stiffness knows, there are challenges in taking road trips with arthritis that can hamper the fun or dissuade you from going altogether.
“It’s hard for me,” says Tami M., a CreakyJoints community member. “[Though] my husband is great about making a ‘stretch your legs’ stop every two hours […] It can be lots of fun if you care for yourself along the way.”
Taking care of yourself is especially important considering you may encounter upticks in traffic this year. In a May 2021 survey of more than 1,000 people from tire manufacturing company Bridgestone, more than half of respondents said they will vacation only by car this summer. Four in five said they feel safer in a car than on a plane right now.
The good news is there are plenty of ways to make road trips with arthritis more pleasant that are recommended by rheumatologists and occupational therapists as well as members of the CreakyJoints community.
Here are 12 tips for make a road trip less painful when you have arthritis so you can actually enjoy your vacation.
Bring cushions and pillows
A little extra padding will help you get comfortable and stay aligned in the car, whether you’re the passenger or driver. “You can bring a lumbar cushion and/or neck pillow to support your spine while driving,” says Lisa Zhu, MD, a rheumatologist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
This is also a favorite go-to tip of our members.
“I use a pillow for my neck that wraps around my headrest, a seat cushion and a lumbar cushion — these never leave my car,” says Kristina H.
Take plenty of breaks
You may think it’s best to drive straight to your destination, but taking the extra time to stop is well worth it — and can even make your trip more enjoyable.
“Try to enjoy the journey by planning out stops to stretch for a picnic or wander through some local gardens or attractions to avoid prolonged stiffness from sitting too long,” says Lynn Ludmer, MD, Medical Director of Rheumatology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
And while you’re taking breaks, consider switching up who is driving and who is serving as the co-pilot. Jo J. uses two-hour playlists to make sure that happens, without having to keep a close eye on the clock. “When the music stops, [you] must get out and move,” they say.
In addition to getting out of the car every few hours, Laura T. recommends using your time in the passenger seat wisely. “Try to do some seated exercises, like shoulder rolls [and] ankle circles.”
If the route is new to you, it’s also a good idea to research it beforehand to get a sense of driving time and good places to rest. “The maps don’t always tell the entire story,” says Dr. Ludmer.
Remember, the idea is to take a break before you need to. “Be proactive about taking breaks and try not to wait until after your pain starts or worsens to take a break,” says Dr. Zhu.
Stretch when you take breaks
Make the most out of your breaks by gently stretching to avoid stiffness and pain. A few physical therapist-recommended stretches include:
- Shoulder Shrugs: Raise your shoulders up to your ears, then shrug back down. Next, bring your shoulder blades together by inching them backward. Do this 10 to 15 times.
- Car Cat/Cow: Put your arms on top of your steering wheel. Arch your back and then curve it forward. Do this 10 to 15 times.
- Calf Stretch: Place your hands against your car and lean forward with one foot about 12 inches in front of the other. Shift your weight into the front foot and keep the back heel against the ground (and both feet pointed forward). Next, slightly bend your back knee to stretch your lower calf and hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Do twice and then switch sides.
Here are more gentle stretches to relieve stiffness from driving with arthritis.
Keep your medication close
The last thing you want to do is dig through the Tetris of suitcases in the trunk when you need your medication — and are in pain.
“Organize your medications in a way that is easily accessible, like in a pill box that is within arm’s reach while you are sitting in the car,” says Dr. Zhu. “Also, bring enough medication to last the duration of your trip and then some, in case your trip takes longer than expected or if medications get spilled.”
Protect yourself from the sun
It’s easy to underestimate the amount of sun exposure you get on the road. But it exists and can lead to a sunburn or even a flare-up, depending on your condition.
“Some people with arthritis, especially those with lupus and similar autoimmune conditions, can get disease flares triggered by UV exposure,” says Dr. Zhu. “If this applies to you, make sure to bring and apply sunscreen, ideally SPF 50 or higher, and/or wear long sleeves and pants throughout your trip.”
Do your research on rental cars
If you’re renting a car, explore your options before picking it up to make sure it can accommodate your needs.
“It should be easy for you to get in and out of and it should be large enough for you to sit inside comfortably and store all of your belongings, plus any assistive devices that you need,” says Dr. Zhu. “Make sure to adjust the mirrors and seat to minimize straining and maintain a good posture.”
Most newer cars have features that make traveling with arthritis easier, but it’s worth checking the technology, too. Older cars may make it more difficult for you to travel with arthritis.
“If you’re heat sensitive, make sure the car has air conditioning,” says Cheryl Crow, OTR/L, an occupational therapist at Arthritis Life and adjunct faculty member of the Lake Washington Institute of Technology’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program. “If manual windows are difficult for you, make sure it has electronic windows. And, depending on your hand function, you might find a button electronic lock easier than a physical key.”
Make your hands more comfortable while driving
“Many [people] with arthritis find that compression gloves can help with pain while using the hands for long periods of time,” says Crow. “Some might also find the models which have gripping material to be helpful.” Read more here about using compressions gloves for arthritis.
You can also find steering wheel covers that make it easier to grip while you drive.
“If you have hand arthritis, you can use a steering wheel cover, which requires less grip strength,” says Dr. Zhu. “There are versions made of rubber, silicone, and sheepskin.”
Bring your usual pain management tools
If you regularly use pain ointments, heating pads, ice packs, braces, splints, canes, or compression socks at home, be sure to bring them on your road trip, too.
Make use of heated seats
One of the most frequently recommended remedies from CreakyJoints community members: heated car seats (or a heating pad if your car doesn’t have heated seats).
“Heated seat pads are a must,” says Autie M.
Casey says, “a heated seat pad that plugs into cigarette lighter was the best $20 I ever spent.”
This makes sense, as heat therapy boosts your blood flow to a given area, helping blood vessels dilate. This draws in more oxygen and nutrients. Heat can be particularly helpful for soothing stiff joints, especially if you have morning stiffness from arthritis.
Stay hydrated and avoid hunger
Drinking enough water or other healthy beverages is good for your joint health overall. It can also help fight fatigue. And since you’ll need to get out regularly to stretch anyway, you shouldn’t worry too much about stopping for bathroom breaks. “Make it as easy to stay hydrated as possible,” says Crow. “Bring extra bottles and choose a water bottle that is lightweight and easy to grasp.”
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the adequate intake (AI) of water — which can come from beverages (like water and tea) and food (like fruits and vegetables) — for men ages 19 and older is 3.7 liters (about 16 cups) liters each day, with 3 liters (13 cups) coming from beverages. For women, the AI is 2.7 liters (about 11 cups) of water, with 2.2 liters (9 cups) coming from beverages.
It’s also important to drink the right fluids. Opt for water or tea instead of sugary sodas or energy drinks.
You should also bring health snacks, adds Dr. Zhu, as properly fueling yourself can help keep pain at bay. Consider packing some anti-inflammatory goodies, like a nut-based trail mix, a vegetable sampler, or a few pieces of fruit.
Sit correctly in the car
How you sit can have a big impact on your comfort level over the course of your trip.
“For basic ergonomics, try to ensure a ‘90-90-90’ angle where the angle between your thighs and trunk, trunk and shoulders, and elbows is all 90 degrees,” says Crow. “For head and neck positioning, this can be tricky as many head rests cannot be adjusted safely. However, if possible, try to avoid an excessive ‘head forward’ position.”
When you’re driving, rotate your upper and lower back when you check for blind spots or reverse the car rather than just moving your neck. (Remember not to rely only on blind spot mirrors or radar detection.) Try to park so you don’t need to back up when leaving, if possible.
You also want to think about how you get in and out of the car to avoid pain and injury. When you get into the car, face away from the seat — in other words, sit and then swivel in, per the Cleveland Clinic. When you get out, swivel to face away from the seat first and use the door frame to assist you. This can help you minimize pain and work with a limited range of motion.
Consider disabled parking placards
A disabled or handicap parking placard may allow you to park in more convenient designated areas, and many cities and states also offer free parking to accessibility permit holders.
“If you need a disabled parking placard, talk with your doctor about this well in advance of your trip, since this process usually takes weeks,” says Dr. Zhu.
Check your local DMV website for more information on getting a placard. Read more here about getting a disabled parking permit.
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5 Tips for Driving When You Have Arthritis or Back Problems. October 30, 2018. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/5-tips-for-driving-when-you-have-arthritis-or-back-problems/.
Bridgestone Survey Reveals Americans Trust Car Travel More This Summer. Bridgestone Americas, Inc. May 24, 2021. https://www.bridgestoneamericas.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2021/bridgestone-summer-driving-safety-survey.
Interview with Cheryl Crow, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist at Arthritis Life and adjunct faculty member of the Lake Washington Institute of Technology’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program
Interview with Lisa Zhu, MD, Rheumatologist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center
Interview with Lynn Ludmer, MD, Medical Director of Rheumatology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore
Report Sets Dietary Intake Levels for Water, Salt, and Potassium to Maintain Health and Reduce Chronic Disease Risk. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. February 11, 2004. https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2004/02/report-sets-dietary-intake-levels-for-water-salt-and-potassium-to-maintain-health-and-reduce-chronic-disease-risk.