Spinal Surgery and Return to Driving

Historically recommendations for return to driving following surgery have varied, and medical clearance is often not obtained until after the first follow up consultation with the treating specialist. Generally, a person may be able to drive again within 2 weeks post-operatively and once comfortable. Dependent on the type of surgery performed and rate of recovery however, it may not be deemed safe for others to return to driving until 6-8 weeks post-operatively.


A recent study by Scott et.al (2015) found that surgeons’ recommendations for a safe return to driving following cervical and lumbar surgery varied considerably and were based on empirical data. The authors undertook a study to look at the change to driver reaction time (DRT) through computer based software. They analysed 37 patients (23 of which had undergone lumbar surgery and the remaining 14 cervical spine surgery) whom were all compared to 14 healthy male controls. All patients were tested pre-operatively and again at 2-3, 6 and 12 weeks post-operatively, with the use of opioids being noted.Dog driving photo


The authors found that the patients having cervical and lumbar surgery showed no significant differences between pre and postoperative DRT. Only the patients having single-level procedures had a significant improvement from a preoperative DRT of 0.951 seconds to 0.794 seconds at 2 to 3 weeks. They concluded that it may be acceptable to allow patients having a single level lumbar fusion who are not taking opioids to return to driving as early as 2 weeks following the spinal surgery.


While the study did not examine the following, we should also be cognisant that a clearance for driving should also take into account the patient’s cognitive state, sensory motor coordination, experience, fatigue levels and the local environment all contribute to driving ability. Travel time/ distance travelled will almost always be markedly reduced in the early stages post-operatively and needs to be taken into consideration, in conjunction with a graded return to work plan.


Workplace Physiotherapy is highly experienced with the provision of post-operative rehabilitation to assist patients with a prompt return to all activities of daily living.
Ref: Scott T.P., Pannel W, Savin D, Ngo S.S., Ellerman J, Toy K, Daubs M.D., Lu D, Wang J.C. When Is It Safe to Return to Driving After Spinal Surgery. Global Spine J. 2015 Aug;5(4):274-81.

The comments above are the implicit advice of Workplace Physiotherapy. The views expressed are based on current evidence-based research and accepted best practice approaches. Unless otherwise stated, these comments are not the view of WorkCover NSW or any other professional body. No reproduction or forwarding of this advice is permitted without the consent of the author.


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