Driving After Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal cord injury (SCI) is an unfortunate and life-altering event that brings drastic lifestyle changes. As patients see changes in their movement, strength, sensations, and other body functions, they also lose the ability to drive and move around independently.
The good thing is, with consistency, the right techniques and a lot of patience, SCI patients can gain back these abilities.
Gaining Mobility after SCI
The inability to move around freely can be debilitating, especially for someone who has only recently experienced this change. So learning to drive is a common and important goal for SCI patients.
This not only gives back some control over their daily lives but also gives them an important confidence boost that can go a long way. For some patients, this can also be the change they need to return to work.
If you’re hoping to learn how to drive after an SCI injury, here’s what to expect:
1. Get evaluated and learn about what to expect from your injury
Some patients’ motor functions can change between the time of injury and a few months later, so it’s important to be thoughtful during this process. Getting evaluated by a CDRS (Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist) will help you understand your injury and set realistic goals for learning to drive.
This ensures that you have the motion, balance and motor skills to be able to drive safely. Additionally, your CDRS can give you an idea of the type of vehicle, equipment or modifications you should look for.
2. Learn to transfer your body and wheelchair into the car
Once your CDRS has determined the appropriate tools and game plan for you, your training will begin. A huge part of learning to drive again involves getting yourself and your wheelchair into the car.
Some patients will learn to move from their wheelchair into the car seat, before breaking down their wheelchair and loading it into the car. If that’s not realistic, there are adaptive wheelchair loading devices that can help. Some cars even allow patients to drive while sitting in their wheelchair.
3. Incorporate adaptive driving hardware for coordination
Though leg strength is not necessary for driving, you do need to be able to use your arms to drive. Thankfully, driving modifications are widely available to make driving accessible and safe to SCI patients.
Controls can be installed on either side of the driver, depending on which arm is stronger. Because many SCI patients depend on their arms for driving, one arm is often used for steering while the other controls gas and braking.
Building the Confidence and Strength Needed for Driving
Learning to drive involves training your body to get used to new movements and building the strength to do them.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Eat healthily and exercise often
The immobility that comes with spinal cord injury can commonly result in the loss of muscle mass. So it’s important to keep your body strong, especially if your goal is to transport yourself from the wheelchair into your car.
In order to build the strength needed for independence, SCI patients need to lead healthy lifestyles. This involves eating foods full of vitamins and essential nutrients and a consistent exercise regimen that helps with retaining muscle mass.
Set a daily routine
SCI patients often struggle with recovery because of the drastic changes that come with the injury. Setting a daily routine is one of the simplest ways to help patients feel in control of their day-to-day lives.
Studies have shown that forming habits can help our brains function better and contribute to mental wellness. In the face of big changes, routines can provide a much-needed sense of structure and comfort.
Increase confidence with a robust in-home program
Learning to transfer yourself into a vehicle with SCI is no easy task. Repetition is a key part of learning any new skill, and this is no exception. Plus, studies have shown that activity-based therapy is an effective way of regaining motor control, and those who spend the most time practicing benefit the most.
Using virtual reality can give patients the ability to practice repetitive movements in the comfort of their own homes. So in addition to setting daily routines to work on your strength and mobility, incorporating a VR tool to boost your therapy sessions can be extremely helpful as well.