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Sleep apnea presents fatal danger for truck drivers

By Victoria Advocate
Jan. 18, 2012 at 5:01 p.m.
Updated Jan. 17, 2012 at 7:18 p.m.


This column first appeared in the fall 2011 edition of The Safety Report magazine:

Did you know that at least one-third of commercial truck drivers suffer from at least a mild case of sleep apnea? That's according to a number of studies, including one by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

But, before we start talking about truck drivers, we have to first get to the root of the problem: Do you know what sleep apnea is? It occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax too much to allow for normal breathing.

When this happens, typically, the person wakes up. In fact, people with severe sleep apnea may wake up hundreds of times a night. The result is inadequate sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, drowsiness and fatigue.

Sleep apnea is most prevalent among males over 40 years old that are overweight and live a sedentary lifestyle. These factors are prevalent among truck drivers.

Signs and symptoms include:•  Loud snoring

•  Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath

•  Observed episodes of breathing cessation during sleep

•  Gasping and snorting

•  Difficulty staying asleep

•  Excessive daytime sleepiness

•  Forgetfulness

•  Trouble concentrating

While anyone can have sleep apnea, risk factors include:

Obesity - more than half the people with sleep apnea are overweight.

Age - People over 40 are more likely to suffer from the disorder.

Male - men are generally twice as likely as women to have sleep apnea.

A large neck - For men, this would be larger than 17 inches; for women, larger than 15 inches.

High blood pressure - Sleep apnea is common among people with hypertension.

Smoking - Smokers are nearly three times more likely than nonsmokers to have sleep apnea.

Use of alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers - These may relax the muscles in the throat.

Your body - Having large tonsils, a large tongue or a small jaw bone.

Family history - your lineage can have some effect on whether or not you have the disorder.

Nasal obstruction - If you have a deviated septum, allergies or sinus problems, you may be more prone to the disorder.

Considering the number of drivers on the road and the associated risk, sleep apnea is a problem - for both the trucking industry and the traveling public.

According to studies conducted on both the U.S. and Canadian drivers, patients with sleep-disordered breathing were 2.5 times more likely to have automobile accidents.

What's more, when you apply those numbers to the trucking industry, it's estimated that 20-30 percent of accidents involving tractor-trailers are sleep related. In fact, one study found that drivers with sleep apnea are three to five times more likely to be involved in a head-on collision.

For proper diagnosis, a person should have a sleep study. This normally involves overnight monitoring of breathing and other bodily functions.

There are several common treatments including surgery, the use of an oral appliance or the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Use of a CPAP machine is the most common treatment and is often effective in controlling sleep apnea.

Making this change is necessary to the safety of truck drivers and all others on the road. A driver who is being successfully treated for sleep apnea is qualified to drive.

Will Sciba and Jim Cole are shareholders in the Victoria firm, Cole, Cole and Easley. Jim Cole is on the board of the John Lindsay Foundation, an educational foundation formed to provide education regarding truck drivers and sleep apnea.

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