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Driving After Surgery

When Is It Safe to Get Behind the Wheel?

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Updated May 21, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

When you can drive after your surgery depends on a variety of factors and is different for every surgery patient. These factors include the type of surgery performed, your general health, age, and many other things.

It is never a good idea to drive yourself home from surgery, as anesthesia can slow reflexes, slow your thought processes, and can even cause amnesia in the hours following surgery. So while you may feel like yourself, your ability to drive and your judgment may be severely hampered. Prior to your surgery, arrange for transportation home with a friend, family member or using public transportation, such as a taxi. This includes driving after any dental procedure that involves sedation or anesthesia.

Refrain from driving for the first 24-48 hours after receiving anesthesia. If you receive sedation or pain medication after your surgery, your return to driving will be delayed further. Surgery drugs, including prescription pain relievers, sedatives, muscle relaxants and many other medications, will slow your reflexes and affect your ability to drive safely.

Most medications that can impair driving will have a warning label, so be sure to look at your medications closely. Until you know how the medication will affect you, it is important that you do not operate a vehicle or any other type of equipment that could be harmful, such as a lawn mower.

Reasons You May Not Be Permitted to Drive:

  • You cannot drive safely due to your medications, including anesthesia or prescription pain medication.
  • You cannot drive safely due to physical limitations (cast, lack of strength).
  • You could injure yourself attempting to drive -- for example, if you have had an orthopedic surgery, such as a hip replacement.
  • You might hesitate to react appropriately, such as slamming on the brakes, for fear of pain.
  • You are wearing an orthopedic device, such as a cast or a brace, that impairs shifting, braking or steering.
  • Your ability to grip the steering wheel is impaired, such as after a shoulder surgery or a carpal tunnel procedure.
  • The surgery typically results in a period of mental impairment, such as brain surgery.
  • Wearing a seatbelt is unsafe and could harm your surgical site, such as after an open heart surgery.
  • Getting out from behind the steering wheel places stress on the incision or surgery site.
  • Shifting is too stressful for your injury.
  • Your vision has been impaired by surgery.
  • The condition that made surgery necessary may impair your ability to drive.
  • Any other reason that your doctor believes you may not be able to drive safely.

While driving after surgery has not been well-researched and varies widely based on the procedure, your surgeon will be likely to have a strong opinion about when it is appropriate to return to all of your daily activities. Only your doctor can take all aspects of your health, surgery and condition into account regarding your ability to drive.

If you are in doubt of your ability to drive, or if you are concerned about a loved one's ability to drive after their surgery, always err on the side of caution. You can always schedule a driving test like one would take prior to getting their first driver's license, so that an independent person can evaluate whether driving can be done safely.

Sources:

Anesthesia and How To Prepare For It. Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School. Accessed July 2011. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Anesthesia_and_how_to_prepare_for_it.htm

Driving After Surgery: How Soon Can You Drive. Jon Hyman, MD. Accessed July 2011. http://www.drjonhyman.com/drivingaftersurgery.html

Effects of Anesthesia and Surgery. The U.S. Department of Transportation. Accessed July 2011. http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/olddrive/OlderDriversBook/pages/Ch9-Section12.html

Patients Warned Over Driving After Surgery. BBC News. Accessed July 2011. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/990919.stm

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