Doctor, when can I return to driving after surgery?
By Dr. Joseph McCormick, Orthopedic Surgeon

Dr. Joseph McCormick is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon. He is seeing patients at our Appleton orthopedic office, located in Ascension NE Wisconsin – St. Elizabeth campus. Request an appointment with him here.

Driving is one of the universal ways that we experience independence in our lives, not to mention the ability to visit with our friends or relatives, attend school or church, or go shopping. It’s hard to estimate, but I probably get asked this question anywhere from five to 10 times per week.

Patients often assume that when you have a lower extremity injury and are discussing the return to driving, that the most important thing is related to use of the right leg. However, there are different models of cars that require driving with both feet, so it’s really not that simple.  It is also important to be clear-minded (free of significant pain medications) when getting back behind the wheel of a car.

Additionally, in order to sit comfortably in a car and view surroundings, you typically need a fairly healthy neck, head and shoulders to control the car. It’s also critical that both arms work well in order to drive effectively.

From a practical perspective, think of driving as a task that requires all four limbs, a clear mind, and a strong core in order to be able to be safe.  When I hear the question, “When can I get back to driving?” I am usually thinking about the answer to all of these necessary functions.

There are suggested guidelines for return to driving after a number of different kinds of surgery, however, early studies were concerned mostly with brake response time, not overall effectiveness while driving.

Let’s take a closer look.

In the State of Wisconsin, licensed drivers are responsible for safely operating a vehicle at any time.  This means that there is no magic “clearance from a doctor” that can exonerate someone from responsibility for an accident or driving error.  You may have the necessary clearance, but the return to driving is still a personal choice that is completely the patient’s decision.

The work that we do consists of simpler procedures such as arthroscopy (joint scope) or cast treatments, to more complex ligament reconstructions and joint replacements, so the return to full driving duties is varied based on the person and on the surgery.

In a broad sense, post-operative therapy can help us understand when recovery is complete for driving, but for most patients driving at two to six weeks is possible for nearly all left lower extremity surgeries.  It is more reasonable to consider waiting between four to 12 weeks for most right lower extremity surgeries.  And finally, foot and ankle fractures and even bunion surgeries require a longer than average healing period.

As with many of the specific questions related to your orthopedic recovery, trust your board-certified orthopedic specialist to help guide you on the safe return to driving.

References available upon request.