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Car Shopping for RA

Car Shopping for RA

A couple of months before my 16th birthday my mom got me the most amazing gift any teenager could want: a car. It was a 12-year-old Nissan and was nothing fancy, but it was a car, it was red, and it was mine. I was in heaven. A year earlier my mom had taught me to drive on her car, which was an automatic transmission. However, my beautiful red piece of adulthood and freedom was a stick shift. Naturally, I was more than happy to learn how to drive a manual transmission, although it was definitely tricky and awkward at first. Yet, once I got the hang of it, I absolutely loved the feeling of driving totally engaged, with my left hand on the wheel, my right hand on the gear shift, my left foot on the clutch, and my right foot on the gas. I vividly remember the moment when I first drove on a highway without anyone else in the car. I felt powerful, alive, and vivacious.

That was six years before my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that makes me feel the exact opposite of how I felt that day. Rather than feeling in control, RA often pushes me out of the driver’s seat of my own life. There are many times when I have plans that are derailed by pain, swelling, and fatigue. Such was the case with my stick shift. I loved driving a manual transmission, and when the Nissan conked out on me, I definitely wanted another standard. Not only are they less expensive, I loved that feeling that I was working the machine of the car, not just passively sitting back. Yet, once my RA kicked into high gear, it turned out that being a little more passive was exactly what I needed. My left wrist and fingers screamed in protest each time I got behind the wheel, as using my right hand to shift placed more strain on my left hand while steering solo. My hips and knees seared with pain working the clutch in addition to the gas and brakes. To my dismay, I realized it was time to go used car shopping yet again, but this time for an automatic transmission.

When I began that search for my first automatic, I realized that the transmission was not the only factor that I had to consider in finding a car that suited my RA needs. Rather than focusing solely on price, fuel efficiency, performance and aesthetics, I also have to take into account the ergonomics of a vehicle before I can commit to purchasing it. Here are some of the features that have proven the most important to my driving comfort in the 15 years since my diagnosis.

Arm rests. I have been amazed to discover how many cars do not have adequate arm rests. Of course, smaller cars aren’t going to have the actual arm rests that some larger vehicles offer, but there are many compact cars and sedans that are not designed with elbows in mind. I went through a number of options I was initially interested in, but as soon as I sat down in the driver’s seat any interest in a test drive disappeared due to lack of anyplace to rest my arm. Either there wasn’t a center console or it was too low to rest my right arm on (being tall doesn’t help), or the door didn’t offer a wide or high enough shelf by the handle to rest my left elbow on. Being able to rest my elbows while driving greatly reduces the strain not only on those joints, but also on my shoulders, neck, and even my wrists. It is an important feature for any vehicle I’m going to drive long term or long distances.

Head rests. I’ve also been surprised to experience how many cars feature head rests that do not actually seem designed to rest your head against. They are often too far back, forcing the driver to lean his/her head back rather than allow the neck to be upright. These types of headrests serve more as catcher’s mitts in the event of an accident, rather than as an actual support for one’s head. As both a driver and a passenger I’ve sat in many cars where it put more strain on my neck and shoulders to place my head against the headrest than to sit without any head support. Therefore, when I’m shopping for a car I look for headrests that are either designed to actually support one’s head or that are adjustable horizontally (not just vertically) so that I can get the support I need.

Cruise control. I imagine this feature is standard on most models nowadays, but I definitely make sure it is included in the vehicle and is operating correctly, as cruise control is crucial for my comfort on any road trip. Greatly reducing the time my foot spends on the gas and brakes eliminates much of the strain driving can cause for my right ankle, knee and hip. Some new cars now have something called “adaptive cruise control,” which works with sensors to automatically slow down or speed up in relation to the car in front of you. That way you don’t even have to use your foot when you suddenly end up behind someone driving the minimum speed on the interstate. My car is a 2007, so I don’t have that feature, but I look forward to it in the future.

Vehicle Height. I have always been conscious of fuel efficiency, so when SUVs became all the rage I did not hop on to that bandwagon. I had always driven smaller cars, so I didn’t know what a difference driving a vehicle higher off the ground made. Yet, when I was pregnant and traded in my sedan for a minivan, I quickly realized how much more comfortable it is to drive a larger vehicle. Getting in and out of a taller car is infinitely easier on my knees and hips. Even while seated, I find a higher vehicle makes a huge difference. Sitting in a minivan or SUV is more like being in a regular chair, whereas sitting in a smaller car puts your feet and legs further in front of you, more like those low beach chairs used for sitting in the waves. Additionally, I find the larger cars seem to better absorb the jolts of driving, so that my joints are not required to do as much shock absorption. I have become so accustomed to the comfort of driving our minivan that when I occasionally drive my husband’s Corolla I am shocked at how much more strain sitting lower to the ground places on my knees and hips. Because of this, I will drive vehicles that are higher off the ground even when my kids are older and a minivan isn’t as practical. Fortunately, there are now many smaller SUVs on the market that are an excellent compromise between the size of traditional SUVs and the fuel efficiency of smaller cars.

I wish that I didn’t have to factor all these considerations into my life as a driver. Yet, since I can’t change the fact that I have RA, making sure that my vehicle accommodates my joints as much as possible goes a long way in keeping me in the driver’s seat.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • girlgonebrooklyn
    4 years ago

    Thank you for this Tamara! I am recently diagnosed and still wading through all of the ways this is already affecting my life – and how it will in the future. I found this article first (googling around to inform my upcoming car purchase), and now the rest of your posts and the website, and I have to say, this is the best website I have found on RA yet. Thank you!

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    I’m so glad to hear that the site is helpful for you! Best of luck as you navigate living with RA!

  • Grannie55
    4 years ago

    Excellent! I love the comments also. I have troubles with my thumbs and we had a Jeep with handles that had a push button too – I would “blow” my thumb out on that darn car. I am fortunate that I am able to drive long distances when we go on a road trip. I do miss the arm rests in our current car, but I have everything positioned right for me and my family knows to leave it alone.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your experience Anne!

  • LISA REINSHAGEN
    4 years ago

    Great story! I too agree with all of your car shopping points for a vehicle. I have the same exact problems with comfort in a car only I am short. Arm rests never fit right. Head rests are useless. I just got an SUV about 2 years ago….what a difference that made getting in and out of the car comfortably. It is funny how the smallest action can affect the strangest things. Turning your head to look behind and around you while you drive is difficult. The neck does not want to strain, but when you are done driving the neck hurts even worse. Like Whiplash! Driving any distances makes my wrists and palms of my hands throb. Ankles and bottom of my feet join in the pain song too!
    Unfortunately as I am sure everyone here can agree on, Clothes shopping, shoe shopping, is difficult now. Not just the shopping part, but finding comfortable clothes and shoes that are easy to get on and off. Even going to the pharmacy is a test, I cannot use a handle basket, I must use a full cart even if I am purchasing 3 items. The strain on my arms is unbearable. I don’t grocery shop any more. The stores are too big and the cart gets too heavy to push around. If my husband is out of town and I need something I take one of my adult children with me for a light shopping trip and they push the cart and carry in, unload, and put away the groceries. I work full time and that takes every bit of energy I have and then some. It is amazing how much this disease has stolen from me. Thanks for all the sharing. Everyone’s comments are so helpful, it nice not to be alone.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing, Lisa! Something that has been a godsend as far as neck turning has been little “blind spot” mirrors that you can affix to your side rearview mirrors. By looking at the two views (one in the side mirror and one in the attached blind spot mirror) I rarely have to turn my head anymore. Sooooo helpful!

  • Corinne
    4 years ago

    We have two cars, so I see positives and negatives in each one. I absolutely prefer the push button start. And the more controls on the steering wheel,the better….no fiddling with console buttons. But by far the most used features are the steering wheel and seat heaters! When my hands get achy, no matter what time of year, a warm steering wheel can ease those achy fingers.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing, Corinne! You have me daydreaming about a warm steering wheel now. I will have to factor that in the next time I go car shopping.

  • GingerS
    4 years ago

    Nice article. I have one more thing to think about when purchasing a car. Recently, I had the experience of not being able to start the car. I have ulner nerve damage to both my hands from the RA. I was unable to turn the key to get the car started. So I was “stuck” where I was at. Which made me think. One for a key ring that is RA friendly, two next time we buy a car. Seriously look for one with a push button start. Hope this helps. Btw I finally did get the car started, but it took a lot to do so. Was very painful and I had to contort my body to get it started.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks for the tip – good point! I’ve never had a push start button, but the thought of one is lovely.

  • jan curtice
    4 years ago

    Good, practical car shopping guide. Thank you. Something else I look for are the handles on the roof/side of door. These help me get into/out of the car. Also, I have found that a hatchback or wagon style door is easier for putting a walker/wheel chair in. The difference is being able to put it straight into the back rather than having to lift it and lay it down, then pick up it back up from that same position & lift it up from out of the trunk.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks for the additional tips, Jan!

  • Karen
    4 years ago

    Hi, may I add to things to think about?
    I have cubital nerve problems, the nerve running down your arm that can get inflamed if your elbow is resting on something. I avoid putting my elbows on the rest. I have to make sure I can drive and not bump my elbow. It makes the hand get numb.

    Adjustable seat belt. I am short and the guys like to have the seat belt on the higher adjustment. That would cut into my neck, I like it on the lowest setting.

    Make sure you can close the back door. My Explorer does not raise as high as my mom’s Durango. Hers is older and does not have a place to add a strap for her to pull it down. We had to screw in a strap.

    I am sure there are other quirks that people have learned and it helps to keep things in mind. Thank you for your story.

    PS I drive automatic. :~)

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks for the additions, Karen! Some people on Facebook have replied about how much they love their heated car seats. I love mine too, and failed to mention them in this article.

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