Sleep apnea is very common, particularly in the commercial driver population. Studies show that up to 28% of commercial drivers may be afflicted. Primary risk factors include being male, overweight, and over the age of forty. Fortunately, sleep apnea can be diagnosed and, with treatment, quality of life and health benefits can be realized.
Sleep apnea is defined as the cessation of breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea – where the tissues in the back of the throat repetitively collapse during sleep, producing snoring and complete airway blockage. This blockage creates pauses in breathing that occur repeatedly every night. In severe cases they can occur as frequently as every 30 seconds. Alarmingly, they can last up to a full minute.
These repetitive pauses in breathing during sleep are accompanied by a reduction in blood oxygen levels and are followed by an arousal response. This response includes a release of substances into the bloodstream, which promote elevation of blood pressure, inflammation, insulin resistance, and a disruption of the brain wave sleep pattern. The consequences of untreated sleep apnea include poor quality sleep, excessive daytime fatigue and sleepiness, irritability, hard-to- control high blood pressure and diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Interestingly, and not coincidentally, many of these same medical conditions account for the majority of health-related expenditures in the commercial driver population. Moreover, untreated sleep apnea may be responsible for job impairment and motor vehicle crashes.