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Parkinson’s Disease: Driving a Car

Parkinson’s disease is a type of movement disorder that can significantly impair driving skills, cause safety concerns, and force many people with the condition to stop driving a car. That’s because the primary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can seriously interfere with the complex task of driving a car. These symptoms are:

  • Tremor -- trembling in the hands, arms, legs, jaw, or head
  • Rigidity -- stiffness of the limbs and trunk
  • Bradykinesia -- slowness of movement
  • Postural instability -- impaired balance

In addition, some people with Parkinson’s disease may develop cognitive impairment: defects in thinking, language, and problem-solving.

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Understanding Parkinson's Disease -- Diagnosis and Treatment

Usually, the outward symptoms of Parkinson's are distinctive enough for a doctor to make a diagnosis in the office. Tests can help your doctor determine whether you have Parkinson's disease or some other type of parkinsonism. If you don't have a response to the drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease, you may have one of these other types of movement disorders and your doctor will probably continue to search for the cause of your symptoms.

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Many people with early Parkinson’s disease can safely continue driving, especially if symptoms are controlled. Because Parkinson’s disease worsens over time, however, many people with Parkinson's disease eventually will need to give up driving a car and rely on other forms of transportation.

In American culture, driving is strongly associated with self-reliance and freedom. Some people with the condition may recognize the safety risks and voluntarily agree to limit or stop driving a car. But others may be unable to acknowledge that their driving skills are seriously impaired and insist on driving despite the safety risks to themselves and others.

How Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms Affect Driving Skills

Parkinson’s disease symptoms vary from patient to patient. They can range from mild to severe. But even in mild cases, common symptoms such as shaking in the arms, hands, or legs; impaired balance; and slowed physical and mental responses can affect driving skills.

Episodes of tremor, for example, often begin in a hand or a foot and can affect the ability to operate a car’s controls. Rigidity can result in jerky motions while steering. Slow movement can interfere with braking in heavy traffic or ability to quickly react to road hazards. Postural instability often results in a stooped posture in which the head is bowed and shoulders are drooped, further reducing drivers’ awareness of their surroundings.

For many people with early Parkinson’s disease, medications can reduce symptoms. But medications may have side effects, such as drowsiness, that can affect driving as well. It can be difficult for doctors to devise a medication plan that reduces the primary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and allows some patients to drive without causing side effects that make driving a car even more dangerous.

Tips for People With Parkinson’s Disease

If you have early-stage Parkinson’s disease and hope to continue driving as long as possible, it’s essential to keep up regular exercise that maintains the muscle strength you need to operate a vehicle. It’s also essential to meet with your doctor and ask him or her about:

  • Medications and other treatment, such as deep brain stimulation, that may treat your symptoms.
  • Medication side effects that can interfere with driving safety.
  • Referral to a center or specialist who can give you an off-road driving test.

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