Driving relies on your body’s ability to react to your surroundings. Although many people with multiple sclerosis (MS) drive safely for several years after diagnosis, neuropathy (numbness or tingling) from MS can make driving more difficult when it affects a person’s feet or legs. Other symptoms, including spasticity (muscle weakness) and vision problems, can also make driving more challenging.
Some MyMSTeam members have expressed concerns about how numbness affects their ability to drive. “My worry is whether or not my legs will go numb. I live in an area where it is kind of essential to drive, and most of the driving is on the highway,” shared one member.
Others have decided it’s safe not to drive. “I had to give up driving. The numbness in my feet meant I couldn’t feel the pedals. I started pressing the accelerator instead of the brake,” shared one member. “Also, my confidence on the road was zero, so I decided to give it up. It was not an easy decision.”
In this article, we’ll look at some options for people affected by foot numbness to continue driving — as well as some alternatives if it becomes unsafe.
Although MS is generally considered a condition of the central nervous system (CNS), studies show it can also affect the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which consists of all neurons that are outside the brain and spinal cord. This can lead to a symptom called peripheral neuropathy — numbness or weakness in the hands and feet.
People with MS experience and describe foot numbness in various ways, including as a pins-and-needles or prickling sensation, muscle weakness, or the loss of sensation in their foot altogether. Vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition are also possible causes of peripheral neuropathy.
One MyMSTeam member described how numb feet affect their ability to drive. “I have had to give up my driving license because my right leg gets numb, and I was either accelerating or braking too heavily. I miss being able to get around, but I have used my motability allowance to get a powered wheelchair (my ‘wizzy wheels’), which is great.”
MS-related neuropathy in your legs and feet can make driving more difficult. However, there are some techniques you can try to ensure you can safely stay behind the wheel.
Some MyMSTeam members have said they drive with only their left foot, with two feet, or with bare feet to help compensate for foot numbness.
It’s not uncommon for people with right-foot issues to use their left foot to operate pedals when they drive. “I found myself not braking correctly because I could not convince my right foot to press the brake. I now drive with my left foot,” said one member.
However, using the left foot to operate the pedals instead of the right (in an automatic transmission vehicle) may come with some potential risks. One small study found that 35 percent of participants drove with their left foot after foot or ankle surgery. Researchers found that participants who used their compromised right foot during driving simulations went over the speed limit and hit other vehicles more often than those who drove with their left foot. However, those who drove with their left foot took more time to fully brake in response to hazards.
Other members say they use both feet to operate the pedals of the car. “I drive with two feet. My right leg (foot drop) is slow to respond. I feel safer this way,” shared one member.
There’s limited research about the safety of using two feet while driving an automatic, and driving experts cite pros and cons.
Driving with two feet or just your left foot isn’t illegal in the United States, but you may want to meet with an occupational therapist for guidance on the safest approach to driving for you.
If your neuropathy is severe, you may want to consult with a podiatrist or orthopedic specialist to help you find the right footwear. There isn’t a specific type of shoe that’s recommended for driving with peripheral neuropathy, but there are general guidelines to keep in mind:
One MyMSTeam member said that driving without shoes makes it easier to feel the pedals under their foot: “I live in Texas and wear flip-flops or slip-on shoes. I take my right shoe off while driving to help me feel the pedals.”
Having your vehicle modified or adding adaptive equipment can make driving with MS easier.
Some MyMSTeam members have reported positive experiences with hand controls — rods that attach to the brake and gas pedals that you can operate with your hands. “I had hand controls fitted to my car two years ago. It was absolutely the best thing I have done,” one member shared. “I still do not drive a lot or long distances, but I can now drive anytime rather than hoping my legs will work today!”
Another member installed a “push/rock system.” “You push the lever on the left forward to brake, and you rock it toward you to accelerate. On the steering wheel, you have a knob that allows you to steer the car. After a while, you get used to it. Your hand takes over the functions that your feet used to do.”
Ask your neurologist about pursuing this option and what the process looks like. Some people purchase a new vehicle with modifications included. Others modify a vehicle they already own.
You’ll need to arrange for training to practice driving with a modified vehicle. “I went through driver’s training, which was a little scary at first,” shared one member. “You keep wanting to put your feet on the pedals, but they’re covered up by a plate. After six driving sessions, I was an expert and ready to have them installed in my car.”
The costs of a modified vehicle can vary widely, and you may be able to find assistance to help with payment. The most expensive option is purchasing a brand-new modified vehicle, which can cost around $80,000. However, hand controls can be bought for less than $1,000.
One member paid about $5,000 for a few modifications but said it was worth the cost: “My right foot and leg became very unreliable. I couldn’t always tell if I was pushing hard enough on the brake. I also had difficulty accurately placing my foot on the brake and then back to the gas. I was blessed to be able to learn how to drive using a rocker and spinner knob plus a pedal block. It cost us about $5,000.”
Vehicle modifications can be expensive, but you may be able to find some financial assistance.
Your car and health insurance providers may help with covering some of the costs of adaptive equipment for your vehicle. Contact them to find out what options you may have. If you have money available in a health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA), you may be able to apply it to vehicle adaptations.
You also can reach out to local nonprofit organizations and government agencies for financial support. Additionally, some states waive the sales tax on a modified vehicle when a doctor’s prescription is provided. If all else fails, ask the car dealership about options such as low-interest financing to help fund your adaptive equipment expenses.
“For those looking into hand controls, I got some financial assistance from the National MS Society,” a MyMSTeam member shared. “Some car manufacturers also give a refund if you purchase a new car and add the hand controls.”
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, the safest option may be to stop driving entirely. This isn’t an easy decision to make. Nonetheless, MyMSTeam members who have made this choice feel it’s what’s best for themselves and others.
“I had to give up my license because I couldn’t feel how much pressure I was putting on the gas or brakes. I’m so afraid I’ll get into an accident and hurt someone,” wrote one member. “The last time I drove, I hit a concrete post at a food store even though I felt like I was standing on the brake. On the way home, I couldn’t get the truck to go the speed limit, and other drivers were getting mad.”
“I just recently gave up my license,” another member shared. “It was a long and hard decision. I still teach three days a week and get a lift there and back. … I did not want to put anyone in danger. I would never forgive myself if my reaction time was off and if I caused someone harm. It is a tough choice, and I miss running out and being on the go. But I have to focus on what I CAN do.”
Sometimes, the decision is made by the individual with MS. Other times, family members, health professionals, or the department of motor vehicles are the first to suggest giving up driving.
If you’re having doubts about your driving ability, discuss your concerns with your doctor and see if a driving test could help you assess whether it’s time to find other means of transportation.
People often worry about losing their freedom if they give up their driver’s license. Members of MyMSTeam have found alternatives to driving, including using public transportation and getting help from friends.
“I moved to a new place that’s embedded in a more convenient area near the city,” one member wrote. “I enjoy public transit and meet lots of people with my bus pass. I maintained my independence and eliminated the stress of a possibly fatal car accident.”
Another said they accept rides and help from loved ones. “Some people look for ways to be generous. Let them! Just say thanks, and pay for gas, or take them to lunch. Be their friend.”
You might also look into ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft, which allow you to book private car service from your phone or computer.
If your numbness continues or gets worse, talk to your doctor about treatment options that may help manage your MS symptoms. Remember that driving with numb feet can be dangerous, so make safety a priority and try to manage your symptoms before getting behind the wheel.
MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 197,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.
Do numb feet get in the way of using the gas or brake pedals in your car? Have you found any short-term fixes to make driving safer? How else do the symptoms of MS affect your daily living and independence? Share your tips and experiences in a comment below or on MyMSTeam.