Road Trip Tips for Arthritis

Learn how to decrease the discomfort and stress of road trips with arthritis. 

Updated Dec. 11, 2023

The stress and tension that often come with road trips can add to physical discomfort and even lead to an arthritis flare. But with proper planning and a few travel tips, you can reduce surprises and anxiety, says Elin Schold Davis, an occupational therapist and coordinator of the Older Driver Initiative for the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) in Bethesda, Maryland. Here’s how:

Plan Ahead

  • Drive with a buddy so you can take turns behind the wheel, allowing the other to move and stretch more in the passenger seat. It also allows one person to help the other with directions. Using your car's or phone's GPS app can also assist navigation when driving solo.
  • If you’re using a rental car, research it before you pick it up to make sure you’re choosing a model with features that can best assist you.
  • Talk with your doctor or occupational therapist before you hit the road to find out the maximum number of hours you should spend in the vehicle and if you should take extra precautions, such as wearing compression socks to help prevent blood clots.
  • If you're staying overnight along the way, plan ahead to make sure a friend’s home or affordable hotel has accessible features and rooms so you can truly give yourself a break. Look for fun stops like places with swimming pools or hot tubs, which could feel great on stiff, sore and swollen joints.

Drive Right

  • Adjust the car before you take off. Make sure the steering wheel and seat are adjusted for optimal comfort and safety so you have a clear line of sight and your foot is positioned so it can be fully depressed on the pedals without having to over reach. Schold Davis cautions that reaching with your toes causes hip discomfort and may exacerbate pain, particularly on longer trips.
  • Buckle up! If the seat belt bothers your neck, change to vertical seatbelt adjustment if your vehicle has that feature. You can also try to raise the seat, but be sure your hips are centered in the seat. These adjustments can move the seatbelt from the neck to the mid-shoulder, where it belongs.
  • Consider adding a cover or pad to the steering wheel to slightly increase the girth, which can improve hand comfort while gripping the wheel, especially for longer trips.

Allow Extra Time

  • Make a point to get out of the car so you can stretch, walk and move at least once every two hours. Schold Davis stresses that prolonged, static positions can be hard on muscles and joints, increasing both stiffness and achiness.
  • Take breaks before you feel a lot of pain. Schold Davis says the goal of planning is to get through the day with minimal pain. If you find yourself in extreme pain, take breaks more frequently and adjust your travel agenda accordingly.

Pack the Essentials and More

  • Bring splints, hot and cold packs, wraps and head and neck pillows, as well as any medications that may be part of your pain management and treatment regimen.
  • Carry physician phone numbers and medication refill information in case it’s needed unexpectedly due to delayed travel.
  • Drink plenty of water and eat healthy meals as too little water can cause dehydration, and fast food or too many snacks can leave you feeling sluggish and tired.
  • Consider getting a seat belt medical alert ID. The fabric band Velcro’s around the shoulder portion of your seat belt and holds papers you’ve filled out explaining your medical condition, what medications you take, what you’re allergic to and what your functional limitations are. You can also wear similar medical alert IDs around your wrist or neck. First responders know to look for and check this information if there is a need to rescue you from the car and you’re too shaken or unable to recall it all yourself.


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