An estimated 1 out of every 3 truckers suffers from sleep apnea, a potentially dangerous condition where a person struggles to breathe as they sleep. This can lead to a host of dangers and medical issues—from feeling distracted and drowsy to heart attack and stroke.
For truck drivers and the companies that employ them, this condition can lead to larger safety concerns. To safely operate their vehicles, truck drivers need to be alert and attentive at all times. Those who drive with sleep apnea symptoms may put themselves or other drivers at increased risk for accidents as the condition can affect focus and reactions, leading to fatigue-related crashes.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition where a person cannot breathe properly while sleeping, causing them to wake up sometimes several hundred times throughout a night. There are three types of sleep apnea:
- Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) is when a person’s brain does not send the proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is when a person’s throat muscles relax as they sleep and collapse, blocking the airway.
- Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome (CSAS) is a combination of CSA and OSA.
People with sleep apnea may gasp for air as they sleep or snore loudly. Even though they can sleep for a full eight hours, the person will wake to feel exhausted as the constant interruptions impact the quality of their rest.
Sleep apnea can be incredibly dangerous, contributing to conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, morning headaches, difficulty staying asleep, attention problems, irritability, and others. Many times, a person will not know they suffer from sleep apnea unless told of potential symptoms—something that may be difficult for truckers and owner/operators who tend to spend lots of time alone.
Who is at Risk for Sleep Apnea?
Anyone can have sleep apnea regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. However, there is a statistical correlation between the size of a person’s neck and their body mass index to sleep apnea sufferers.
People who have a larger neck size or are overweight have a higher chance of suffering from sleep apnea. A sleep study—done either at a sleep lab or in some cases at a person’s home—can help determine if someone suffers from the disorder.
How Do You Treat Sleep Apnea?
Once diagnosed, a sleep apnea sufferer may be prescribed one of several treatments. A Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine is typically the most common remedy. This device delivers air pressure through a mask placed over a person’s face that can help keep their airway open.
Other treatment options include a Mandibular Advancement Device, or MAD, which is a custom-designed mouth guard to help keep the throat open. Some sufferers simply sew a tennis ball to the back of their sleeping clothes to stop them from lying on their back.
More severe treatments include surgery or implants, although the most common way to relieve sleep apnea is to lose weight.
What Truckers Need to Know About Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea among truckers has been a concern for more than two decades. Some companies require drivers who meet certain criteria—either for age, body mass index, or neck size—to complete sleep studies to see if they suffer from apnea, although there is no formal regulation.
Some experts, including P. Sean Garney, vice president of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, believe formal regulation may happen under the administration of President Joe Biden. One issue for trucking companies is the cost of sleep studies, which can be expensive both for drivers and for companies.
Many organizations have started working with organizations like SleepSafe Drivers, a third-party sleep apnea and fatigue-management service, for coaching and monitoring. With such a high number of drivers at risk for the condition, trucking companies see long-term value in finding ways to help those at risk, even before regulation makes it mandatory.
Even if a driver’s company does not require it, or if they work as an owner/operator, there is a benefit in getting tested for sleep apnea. As mentioned, several potential remedies can help a person feel more awake, alert, and calm during the day, reducing the potential for dangerous accidents. For truckers who spend their workday behind the wheel, they must do so at their full physical and mental capability for their sake and those sharing the road.