When driving hurts: characterizing the experience and impact of driving with back pain

Joshua Seward, Despina Stavrinos, David Moore, Nina Fay Attridge, Zina Trost

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objectives: Driving is one of the most widespread aspects of daily living to people in the United States and is an active process that requires various cognitive functions, such as attention. Chronic low back pain (CLBP) is one of the more prevalent and costly health conditions in the world, with individuals who report CLBP also reporting significant impairment across different domains of daily life both physically and cognitively. However, despite the prevalence of these two constructs, research detailing the experience of driving in pain remains largely underrepresented. This cross-sectional study sought to characterize the driving experience of people who experience CLBP, focusing on the psychological constructs related to chronic pain like pain catastrophizing, affective responses (irritability, anxiety, fear), and self-reported driving behaviors and outcomes.

Methods: This study distributed an online questionnaire measuring pain, disability, and other psychological constructs commonly associated with CLBP like pain catastrophizing through M-turk to 307 U.S. participants with recurring CLBP and regular driving activity. Participants also answered questions regarding driving in pain, affective responses to driving in pain (i.e., irritability, anxiety, and fear), driving behaviors and violations, driving avoidance habits as a result of pain, opioid use, using pain medication while driving, and recent vehicle collisions within the past three years. Bivariate correlations were used to compare study variables, and one-way ANOVA’s were used to compare means between participants with and without a collision history within the past three years.

Results: Findings demonstrated significant positive associations not only between the psychological factors commonly associated with chronic pain, such as pain intensity, pain disability, pain catastrophizing, and the cognitive intrusion by pain, but also statistically significant relationships between these measures and pain intensity while driving, affective responses to driving in pain, driving violations, and driving avoidance habits. Additionally, in comparison to participants with no collision history within the past three years, participants who had been driving during a vehicle collision reported greater pain catastrophizing and cognitive intrusion by pain scores.

Conclusions: To our knowledge, the current study is the first to characterize driving experience specifically among individuals with CLBP, with attention to the relationship among key sensory, affective, and cognitive psychological metrics as well as self-reported driving history and behavior. The current findings reinforce multiple associations between pain and cognitive-affective variables that have been observed in literature outside the driving context, including pain intensity, anger, inattention, and behavioral disruption. Given that driving is a pervasive, potentially risky behavior that requires some form of cognitive focus and control, the current findings point to a continued need to examine these associations within this specific life context.

We believe we have laid a groundwork for research considering the role of psychological pain variables in a driving performance. However, the nature of our analyses prevents any sort of causality from being inferred, and that future experimental research is warranted to better understand and explain these mechanisms underlying driving in pain while accounting for participant bias and subject interpretation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)445–456
JournalScandinavian Journal of Pain
Issue number3
Early online date24 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jul 2021


  • attention
  • chronic low back pain
  • distraction
  • driving
  • pain
  • pain catastrophizing

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