Untreated Sleep Apnea Can Affect Your Driving

Do you snore? Do you experience excessive daytime sleepiness or wake up feeling unrefreshed? Do you have trouble concentrating or staying alert for extended periods of time? If so, you may be one of the 70 million people in the United States dealing with some type of sleep disorder.

One very common disorder is sleep apnea, a major contributor to daytime drowsiness – a condition that could greatly impact a driver’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle and one that could prove deadly for drivers and others sharing the road with them. Yet many people are unaware that they have sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

It is estimated that as many as 25 million Americans have sleep apnea. It is a condition in which breathing is interrupted during sleep, resulting in a decrease in the oxygen level in the blood. The body reacts by partially, and sometimes completely, awakening every time breathing stops. This can occur literally hundreds of times during the course of an eight-hour sleep, making it impossible to get the necessary deep sleep needed to wake fully rested. Untreated, sleep apnea can cause fatigue, poor reaction times, difficulty concentrating and, for drivers, the risk of falling asleep at the wheel. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), drivers who are fatigued are involved in at least twice as many accidents as those who are not.

What Are The Risks?

Chronic and severe snoring is a strong indicator of sleep apnea and, while many more men are affected, women can also develop the disorder. Sleep apnea occurs in all age groups, but there are certain factors that put you at higher risk: obesity; over age 40; a large neck size (17 inches or greater in men and 16 inches or greater in women); large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone; a family history of sleep apnea; Gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD; nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies, or sinus problems; smoking and alcohol use; and ethnicity. Those affected can suffer from depression, irritability and learning and memory difficulties. Left untreated, symptoms can escalate to high blood pressure, heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia and stroke.

Diagnoses & Available Treatments

If you suspect that you might have sleep apnea, see your doctor. One of the most common methods of diagnosing the condition is a sleep study. It may require an overnight stay at a sleep center to monitor your sleep state, eye movement, muscle activity, heart rate, respiratory effort, airflow and blood oxygen levels. Depending on the severity of the diagnosis, treatment can include the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device, which is a mask that fits over the nose and/or mouth and gently blows air into the airways to help keep them open during sleep. Other methods for treating sleep apnea include dental appliances, which reposition the lower jaw and tongue, and surgical procedures to increase the size of the airway.

Lifestyle changes such as keeping your weight down, avoiding alcohol and quitting smoking can also be effective in mitigating the symptoms of sleep apnea.