Driving ergonomics: How to steer clear of musculoskeletal pain while driving

Driving ergonomics: How to steer clear of musculoskeletal pain while driving

Over 80% of drivers experience lower back pain in their lifetime. Frequent drivers also report higher than average rates of neck, shoulder, knee and hip pain, most commonly caused by nuances in their driving posture or driving for long periods without breaks. 

Driving is an important part of daily life for people across the world, with 50 million licensed drivers in the UK and 234.4 million in the US. However, 54% of people adopt incorrect postures when they drive, which is a leading cause of back pain and other musculoskeletal (MSK) injuries in drivers. 

Long stints behind the wheel can put a lot of pressure on your joints and muscles, often resulting in pain and discomfort over time. Rates of pain are particularly high amongst professional drivers – 29% of truck drivers and 15% of taxi drivers typically lose at least 5 working days each year due to lower back pain. This has a huge impact on employee job satisfaction and quality of life, plus a significant monetary cost to the business.

Did you know? Driving for long periods without breaks is also a leading cause of road traffic accidents. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s latest figures reveal there are around 90,000 road crashes annually as a result of driving fatigue, causing 50,000 injuries and 800 deaths.

What is driving ergonomics?

Driving ergonomics refers to adjusting your driving environment and habits to reduce your risk of physical injury while driving. Every driver is different, with different risks to their musculoskeletal health based on physiology, past injuries, behaviours and the type of vehicle they drive. But with the right individual approach, simple changes like changing your seat inclination or incorporating movement into your driving breaks can go a long way to help you reduce pain on the road. 

A key part of driving ergonomics is adopting the correct sitting posture in the driver’s seat. It’s important to adjust your vehicle to support your body’s natural position, to avoid unnecessary strain behind the wheel.

How to prevent musculoskeletal pain while driving

Here are four ways you can improve your driving ergonomics to help you steer clear of musculoskeletal pain while driving:

1. Lumbar support and seat inclination

Studies show that drivers who use lumbar support are 50% less likely to develop back pain. Proper lumbar support and seat inclination are crucial for maintaining the natural curve in your lower back (lumbar lordosis), significantly lowering your risk of pain. 

Most cars don’t inherently support your sitting posture, but many offer seat adjustments to help you achieve a better driving position. Set the back angle of your seat to 100-110 degrees and consider adding a lumbar support cushion to your driving seat (10mm thickness is best), to reduce pressure on your lower back while driving.

2. Steering wheel, arm and hand positioning

Your steering wheel position and how you hold it can have a big impact on your upper limb health. Try to keep your elbow angle between 95° and 120° when you steer. This will enable you to maintain good control while minimising strain on your biceps. Bring your steering wheel closer towards you to reduce the strain on your shoulder muscles and prevent rotator cuff injuries.

Place both your hands on the steering wheel at either 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock or 10:10 positions. This symmetric position helps you maintain a balanced posture, distributing your effort across both arms evenly and minimising your risk of musculoskeletal discomfort.

3. Leg and foot placement on the pedal

The way you position your legs and feet in the car changes the way your lower limb muscles (rectus femoris, hamstrings, and gastrocnemius) are activated and used. In general, a lower seat height is best to reduce muscle strain in your thighs and calf muscles while driving. 

Adjust your seat to keep your foot in a natural, straight position in line with the car, and avoid rotating it when pressing the pedals. This can help reduce the muscle effort required to press the pedals by 1.66 times and minimise any extra strain on your legs.

Did you know? Pressing the pedals with your glute muscles rather than your quads can help reduce the strain on your knees. Glutes are stronger than quads and capable of lifting your body weight. If you’re stuck in traffic, engage your glutes to preserve energy during your drive!

4. Take active breaks during your journey

Long drives are tiring for your mind and body. Research shows that even a short pit stop during your drive can significantly reduce pain and improve your overall driving experience. 

Research shows that taking simple rest breaks can reduce perceived discomfort by 1.4 points on the Visual Analog Scale (VAS), an industry standard commonly used to measure pain levels on a scale of 1-10. Significantly, incorporating movement into your breaks can lead to a substantial reduction in driver pain (up to 2.9 VAS points) compared to sitting alone, which is comparable to a full  physiotherapy program! 

We recommend taking a 15 minute active break for every 2 hours of driving. Studies prove that driving performance tends to deteriorate after 2 hours and recuperates after taking breaks. Try some simple stretches or go for a short walk to break up your journey and look after your health.

How the VIDA Driver Assessment can help

The VIDA Driver Assessment is a clinically-validated digital tool that assesses your driving environment and habits based on established research in the field. Every driver has a different risk profile with unique factors that make them more susceptible to pain. VIDA allows drivers to carry out in depth assessments to spot any risks in their driving posture and ergonomics. It provides personalised guidance and clinical insights to improve musculoskeletal health for drivers. 

The assessment is part of VIDA’s extensive suite of features to reduce pain in the workplace. 68% of UK employees drive to work, so any pain they experience during the commute has an impact during the working day. Our tool recognises the deep connection between your driving posture and physical health. It offers tailored strategies to reduce pain and injury, promoting a healthier work-life for those who drive regularly.

At Vitrue Health, we’re on a mission to reduce musculoskeletal pain for millions of people. For more information on how VIDA can help you and your team reduce musculoskeletal pain while driving, get in touch with us at sales@vitruehealth.com or book a demo today!

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Content Marketing Manager

Marisa has over 7 years of experience writing about a range of clinical topics including DSE, hybrid working and employee wellbeing. Check out more of Marisa's articles on the Vitrue Health blog!

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