At The Wheel With Sleep Apnea!

Background: When a person has obstructive sleep apnea, they may stop breathing during their sleep for10-30 seconds at a time. And this can happen up to 400 times a night. Obstructive sleep apneadeprives a person of restorative rest and they oftenfeel sleepy thenext day. This lack of sleepcan be very dangerous, especiallyif the person fallsasleep while at the wheel.

Study: Investigators found that"persons with untreated sleep apnea perform as poorly on simulated steering and psychomotor reaction time tests as legally intoxicated individuals." They also noted that the prevalence of obstructed sleep apnea in drivers is estimated at 3%, or 4.7 million drivers. A recent study of 1,391 commercial truck drivers found that 28% had obstructive sleep apnea, with more than one-third characterized as moderate to severe.

Comments: These are sobering numbers indeed. Individuals with sleep apnea are urged to seek diagnosis and treatment, perhaps with the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) while they sleep.

Another approachis to review current highway regulationsthat allowcommercial truck drivers to drive excessively long and exhausting shifts.

It is bad enough whenyou areon the road surrounded by drivers talking on their cell phones but itcould be even worse if they fall asleep behind the wheel while talking on the phone. But then again, maybe the cell phones keep them awake.

Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.
Frederick Hecht, M.D.
Medical Editors,

Related Links:

Sleep Apnea Treatment Could Save Lives & Money
By Reducing Auto Accidents, According To Researchers

By Sue Pondrom

May 1, 2004 -- Each year, potentially 980 lives could be saved and $11.1 billion in automobile-accident costs could be avoided if drivers who suffer from a disorder called obstructive sleep apnea were successfully treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), according to a study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine.

Published in the May 2004 issue of the journal Sleep, the study determined the percentage of accidents related to sleep apnea and applied the success rate of treatment to conclude how many of these accidents could potentially have been prevented.

The research team noted that 1,400 fatalities each year are caused by sleep-deprived drivers with obstructive sleep apnea, a breathing disorder caused by intermittent blockage of the airway. The condition is a common problem affecting millions of Americans. During sleep, these individuals stop breathing for 10 to 30 seconds at a time, sometimes up to 400 times a night. As a result of poor quality sleep, persons with sleep apnea experience excessive daytime sleepiness which can lead to motor vehicle crashes.

The most common, effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is CPAP, where a patient wears a mask over the nose during sleep. Pressure from an air blower forces air through the nasal passages, preventing the throat from collapsing while the individual sleeps.

However, most people with obstructive sleep apnea don't realize they have the condition and don't get help.

In their study, the research team, which included investigators from the U.S. and Canada, analyzed medical research data from 1980 to 2003 to investigate the relationship between auto collisions and obstructive sleep apnea in untreated individuals. Additional data from the National Safety Council were used to estimate collisions related to obstructive sleep apnea, plus costs and fatalities, and their reduction with treatment. A final analysis included a determination of the annual cost of screening, diagnosing and treating the disorder in drivers.

"Qualitatively, the scientific community has known for approximately 20 years that sleep apnea increases the risk for automobile crashes. This is the first study to quantify the impact of obstructive sleep apnea on society, which is quite significant," noted the study's primary author, Alex Sassani, M.D., a UCSD medical student when the study was conducted and a current resident in UCSD's Department of Radiology. "The consequences of untreated obstructive sleep apnea are great, both in terms of monetary costs and lives disrupted. This is an enormous burden that demands attention."

Past studies have shown that drivers with obstructive sleep apnea have a higher rate of collisions than do individuals without the disorder. In fact, studies comparing alcohol-impaired subjects to individuals with untreated obstructive sleep apnea show that persons with untreated sleep apnea perform as poorly on simulated steering and psychomotor reaction time tests as legally intoxicated individuals.