If you experience shoulder pain when driving, you’re not alone. Many people suffer from shoulder discomfort and pain while operating a vehicle. The shoulder is a complex joint made up of several muscles, tendons and ligaments that allow extensive mobility in multiple directions. While this range of motion provides versatility, it also makes the shoulder vulnerable to overuse injuries and pain.
There are several potential causes of shoulder pain when driving:
One of the most common culprits of shoulder discomfort is poor posture while seated at the wheel. When your torso is hunched forward, your shoulders roll inward and your neck cranes forward. This places strain on the muscles and joints. Maintaining proper upright posture with your shoulders pulled slightly back can help take pressure off the shoulders while driving.
Gripping the steering wheel tightly and failing to relax the shoulders leads to muscle tension in the upper back and neck. This chronic tension triggers pain signals. Making an effort to periodically shake out the arms and take deep breaths can calm muscle tension when it flares up during driving.
Rotator Cuff Injury
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint, providing stability and mobility. Rotator cuff injury or impingement results from repetitive motion or acute trauma. Pain occurs when the tendons become inflamed or damaged. The internal and external rotation of the shoulder required for steering can aggravate this type of injury.
Osteoarthritis is a common age-related cause of shoulder discomfort, causing achy pain and stiffness that is aggravated by movement. The internal rotation motion to turn the steering wheel can exacerbate arthritis pain. Inflammatory types of arthritis may also provoke shoulder pain.
A pinched nerve in the shoulder region can radiate pain down the arm when driving. Common culprits include a herniated disc in the neck or carpal tunnel syndrome. Nerve compression causes numbness, tingling and sharp pains. Altering your posture and stretching can minimize compression.
The positioning of your seat, placement of the steering wheel and your visual line of sight can contribute to shoulder discomfort if not optimized for your height and frame. Adjust your seat height and distance from the wheel so you don’t have to overly extend your arms.
Bumpy roads or uneven surfaces transmit vibrations through the vehicle that can irritate the shoulder joint and muscles, especially if gripping tightly or tense. Focus on having a relaxed grip and arms to dampen the effect of vibrations. Take frequent breaks on lengthy rough roads.
An acute injury such as a muscle strain, ligament sprain or dislocated shoulder can lead to pain when driving during recovery. A sling may provide support and immobilization to alleviate discomfort. Avoid driving until the injury has substantially healed if possible.
Lifting heavy objects like luggage or gear before a drive may provoke shoulder soreness that persists at the wheel. Take time to warm up the shoulders before and after heavy lifting to prevent strain.
Repeated rotation, elevation and extension of the shoulder joint during prolonged driving can lead to overuse, especially if the posture is poor. Take regular breaks to get out of the seated position and walk around to give the shoulder muscles a rest.
Driving in cold weather causes muscles to stiffen and contract, resulting in achiness. The confined space of a car also promotes tense muscles that exacerbate discomfort. Warm the vehicle up and dress warmly during cold weather to prevent muscles from tightening up.
Improving Shoulder Pain When Driving
If you regularly experience shoulder discomfort behind the wheel, make adjustments to prevent and alleviate the problem:
- Maintain upright posture and avoid hunching forward or leaning to one side.
- Adjust your seat height and distance from the wheel.
- Check that your steering wheel and mirrors are properly positioned.
- Take regular breaks to stand, stretch and move the shoulders.
- Do shoulder rolls, rotations and stretches before and during long drives.
- Use a small pillow or lumbar support in the natural curve of your back.
- Keep the upper arms close to the body when gripping wheel.
- Hold wheel lightly with relaxed grip and bent elbows.
- Avoid resting your arm on the window edge or armrest for long.
- Use heat/ice therapy on the shoulders before and after driving.
- Treat any underlying conditions like arthritis or injuries.
- Consider physical therapy exercises to increase shoulder strength and range of motion.
- Speak to your doctor about prescription or over-the-counter pain relief.
By identifying what’s causing your shoulder pain when driving and making proper adjustments, you can hopefully find some relief and get back to pain-free time on the road. But persistent or worsening pain should be evaluated by your doctor for appropriate treatment. Keeping your shoulders strong and flexible will also help reduce discomfort during daily driving.