Sleep apnea is a growing problem in the trucking industry. According to a study sponsored by FMCSA and American Transportation Research Institute of the American Trucking Associations, almost one-third (28 percent) of commercial truck drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea. The reason for the high number in drivers is because it is more common in men than women, more common in smokers, and in people who are overweight, all things that tend to be higher among drivers. A family history, alcohol use, and neck size also contribute to the likelihood of developing sleep apnea.
Maintaining a healthy weight on the road is exacerbated by too many unhealthy food options and sitting sedentary behind the wheel for long periods of time, and those excess pounds can lead to sleep apnea. Unfortunately, it often goes undiagnosed, can lead to serious health problems, and can even be life-threatening.
What Is It?
Sleep apnea is when a person stops breathing while they’re asleep. It can last anywhere from a few seconds to more than a minute and can happen a few times to hundreds of times a night. A person with sleep apnea may not even be aware that they suffer from the disorder and may merely think they snore which is a common symptom of sleep apnea, along with choking while sleeping.
Why Sleep Apnea is a Problem
Sleep apnea, disruptions in sleep, can cause sleepiness during waking hours which can lead to increased accidents while on the road. Even mild sleep apnea can disrupt sleep and prevent the driver from entering deep REM sleep that all need to get a healthy, restful night’s sleep. Because of this, drivers with sleep apnea are at a much greater risk of drowsy driving, or even falling asleep while driving, and causing an accident. Sleep apnea not only leads to sleepiness, but it also increases blood pressure, memory problems, headaches, stroke, heart attacks, diabetes, and heart arrhythmia. Increased risk of developing depression can also occur. All of these problems affect a driver’s ability to drive and could disqualify him from driving commercially.
Because of the risks, more and more trucking companies are requiring their drivers to undergo testing for sleep apnea. Drivers with mild sleep apnea may still be eligible to drive but those with moderate to severe sleep apnea will not.
Obstructive sleep apnea is treated using a CPAP machine. Once diagnosed by a sleep specialist, which can usually be done using a monitor that looks for disruptions in sleep, recommendations can be made for a CPAP device consisting of a machine that pumps air to control breathing, and a face or nose mask to distribute the air.
CPAP therapy is the most effective solution for obstructive sleep apnea but while it may be a more immediate solution, the units can be uncomfortable to wear while sleeping which can cause users to not wear them as much as they should.
The best cure for sleep apnea is to lose excess weight and keep it off. Eating healthy and getting regular exercise can be challenging for drivers who spend long hours behind the wheel of a truck and the added sluggishness that sleep apnea causes makes it difficult for drivers to maintain their optimal weight and get the exercise they need.
But it can be done. Healthy meals can be brought from home and truck stops are beginning to offer healthier options for drivers. Insurance companies may offer gym memberships and many carriers are offering ways for their drivers to lead healthier more active lives. Once successfully treated, a driver may regain the ability to drive if approved by the medical examiner.
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