Sleep Apnea and Driving

One of the most common activities most of us do every day is driving. If you have a job, you most likely drive. If you go to school, and you’re older than 16, you probably drive. Unless you live in a big city where public transportation is the norm, you may be driving  hours every day. Some people commute a long distance across sweeping, windy roads. Others stay stuck in traffic for both their morning and evening commutes, honking their horn in frustration as they watch the minutes tick away. One thing is for sure: you shouldn’t drive under the influence of sleep deprivation.

One study noted that drivers with untreated sleep apnea have a higher risk of being involved in a driving accident . The study also indicated that during a series of performance tests, drivers with untreated sleep apnea fared worse than those with higher than legal blood alcohol concentrations for commercial truckers. This research shows that for any drivers with symptoms of sleep apnea, being on the road is a dangerous and potentially fatal situation.

Drowsy driving statistics are scary.  According to the  National Sleep Foundation , over 100,000 accidents and more than 1500 deaths each year result from drowsy driving.  While drowsy driving can be caused by anything that keeps someone from getting enough sleep, people with sleep apnea may be at a higher risk because they routinely do not get enough sleep and as many have not been diagnosed, they may not even realize how often their sleep is disrupted.  This is why raising awareness about both problems and establishing the kind of link between the two that is provided by these guidelines is so important.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), around 28 percent of commercial truck drivers may have obstructive sleep apnea, which is a scary combination. Around 17 percent have mild sleep apnea, while close to 6 percent have a moderate form and almost 5 percent have severe sleep apnea.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) sufferers increase the risk of traffic accidents by seven times. Data from several European countries as well as Australia, Canada and the USA are concordant: OSA has been estimated to be responsible for 5 to 10 % of all motor vehicle accidents.

Obstructive sleep apnea or OSA is the result of skeletal muscle tissue losing its tone and collapsing into the airway during sleep. When a person falls asleep, the central nervous system is more relaxed causing the electrical activity to the skeletal muscle to decrease. When the muscle loses its tone, gravity pulls it into the airway causing the person to stop breathing for ten seconds or more. The brain senses a decrease in oxygen and causes an arousal and the person wakes up and takes a breath. When the person falls asleep again, this process can repeat itself up to hundreds of times during the night. The diagnostic instruments at Sleep Care Centers can pick up OSA so that a doctor can diagnose it and treat it, helping to improve the quality of life.

Many sleep apnea patients say they never fall asleep while driving. That may be true. But remember, you don't have to fall asleep to have a crash. You simply have to be inattentive or less alert — and with untreated sleep apnea; you are not as sharp as you should be.