Why Sleep Apnea Affects So Many Truckers

November 30, 2015 by Justin Stoltzfus, SjStoltz

Sleep apnea is a common problem in America. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, as many as 22 million of us struggle with the condition, which can disrupt sleep and cause fatigue.

Sleep apnea happens when short pauses in breathing happen many times per night and interrupt the natural cycle of breathing, which causes sleepers to sleep less soundly. The disorder has to do with the actions of certain throat muscles, which can narrow or obstruct the windpipe, causing the body to respond and momentarily interfere with sleep.

Sleep Apnea and Truck Drivers

When it comes to sleep apnea among truck drivers, a widely cited 2002 study by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the University of Pennsylvania showed evidence that nearly one third of all drivers have some form of sleep apnea, and some experts claim the numbers have risen dramatically since then. Sleep apnea is clearly an epidemic for those who work long hours driving, and it’s something that driver advocates, safety groups, and others are taking seriously.

Why Is Sleep Apnea Common Among Truckers?

Medical resources provide a long list of risk factors for sleep apnea. These include:

  • Family history
  • Weight
  • Smoking/alcohol use
  • Age
  • Neck size

Two of these — weight and smoking/alcohol use — may relate to the average truck driver’s lifestyle. One big challenge with the sedentary job of truck driving is staying active: With less access to daily exercise, many drivers struggle with weight gain, which can induce sleep apnea. The tedium of the road may also lead to a smoking habit, which is another risk factor.

Another problem for truckers relates to the treatment for the disorder. Sleep apnea patients use machines, either CPAP or BiPAP, that aid the body’s respiratory system in the night. However, these are easier to use in a conventional bedroom, with available wall outlets, a lot of space for installation, and a familiar personal environment. For truck drivers, who often sleep in their vehicles, it can be tough to install and operate these treatment machines.

What Can Be Done?

First, those with sleep apnea issues should go to a qualified sleep center to be evaluated by medical professionals. Doctors may recommend a CPAP or BiPAP machine or nasal dilators, with the goal of improving the patient’s nocturnal involuntary respiratory cycle. Lifestyle changes including weight loss can also alleviate the symptoms of sleep apnea.

With the correct treatment, someone who has had sleep apnea may be able to return to the road, but the FMCSA states that someone with untreated sleep apnea is not medically qualified to operate a truck on a CDL license. Carriers have a responsibility to monitor whether individuals have sleep apnea, as the disorder increases fatigue and contributes to many large vehicle crashes. Safety groups are working to ensure that those suffering from active or untreated sleep apnea are not on the road.

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