How Does Sleep Apnea Impact the Trucking Industry?

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Operating a massive 80,000-pound commercial truck requires truck drivers to be alert, well rested, and focused on the road ahead and the other vehicles that are sharing the road. Unfortunately, truck drivers are at an increased risk for sleep apnea, which is a potentially serious sleep disorder that causes the person’s breathing to stop and start intermittently throughout the night. When a truck driver’s sleep is interrupted, he or she may suffer from headaches, have difficulty concentrating, and feel extremely drowsy while driving.

A number of studies have found that truck drivers are prone to sleep apnea, which can increase the risk of serious truck accidents if the condition is undiagnosed and untreated. If a motorist is seriously injured in a truck accident involving a truck driver who has sleep apnea, he or she is urged to contact an experienced truck accident lawyer as soon as possible.

There are three types of sleep apnea that can affect truck drivers. It is crucial that the condition is diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. The following is an overview of the three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: This is the most common form of sleep apnea and occurs when the throat muscles relax, which causes the breathing to stop and start.
  • Central sleep apnea: This occurs when the brain fails to send signals to the breathing muscles, causing shortness of breath or difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. It is a less common form of sleep apnea.
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome: This is also known as treatment-emergency central sleep apnea, which occurs in someone who suffers from both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Why are Truck Drivers at an Increased Risk for Sleep Apnea?

Some of the most common risk factors for sleep apnea include obesity, a large neck size, smoking and alcohol use, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and gender. Unfortunately, owing to the sedentary lifestyle, lack of good nutrition on the road, and some of the other common health issues that truck drivers often experience, they are at an increased risk for developing sleep apnea.

Truck drivers are much more likely to lose focus or even nod off for several seconds at a time. This can have devastating consequences when there are other vehicles in the vicinity. The following are examples of additional risk factors for which truck drivers should be aware:

  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Having a small upper airway
  • Recessed chin, small jaw, or a large overbite
  • Large neck size
  • Age
  • The use of narcotic pain medications
  • Previous stroke

According to several studies, one-third to one-half of truck drivers in the United States suffer from mild to severe sleep apnea. According to a 2002 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the American Transportation Research Institute of the American Trucking Associations, approximately one-third of commercial truck drivers suffer from some form of sleep apnea. A 2019 study from the University of Minnesota Morris found that drivers whose sleep apnea was untreated had a preventable crash risk that was five times higher than those who received treatment for sleep apnea.

A more recent study from 2020 was conducted by researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), which was presented at a Transportation Research Board committee meeting earlier this month. The study found that close to half of the 20,000 commercial truck drivers who participated in the study may be at risk for obstructive sleep apnea.

The drivers were tested using a screening tool that examined a range of factors, including snoring, tiredness, hypertension, body mass index (BMI), observed apnea, age, neck circumference, and gender. Of the 20,000 study participants, 9,382 had obstructive sleep apnea potential. According to a VTTI researcher who participated in the study, the goal of the study is not to diagnose people, but to obtain an accurate estimate of drivers who may have obstructive sleep apnea. It is important for truck drivers to be aware of the health risks associated with little to no exercise, poor nutrition, history of smoking, and alcohol use.

What are the Common Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

The symptoms for obstructive sleep disorder may be slightly different than the symptoms associated with central sleep apnea, but there are many symptoms that overlap. The following are examples of some of the most common symptoms of both types of sleep apnea:

  • Loud snoring
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Episodes of intermittent breathing throughout the night, as reported by another person
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Insomnia, including difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Hypersomnia, represented by excessive fatigue during the day
  • Morning headache
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Frequent urination during the night
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Nighttime sweating
  • Difficulty paying attention during the day

Can Sleep Apnea Cause Other Health Complications?

Sleep apnea alone can be a potentially serious health condition, but it can also lead to other health complications, including the following:

  • High blood pressure and other heart conditions: Sleep apnea causes sudden drops in blood oxygen levels, which can increase blood pressure and strain the cardiovascular system. Untreated sleep apnea can also increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, and an abnormal heartbeat, including atrial fibrillation. If an individual already has heart disease, multiple episodes of sleep apnea can lead to a fatal irregular heartbeat.
  • Type 2 diabetes: Sleep apnea can increase the risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
  • Metabolic syndrome: This includes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood glucose, and obesity, all of which are associated with a higher risk of heart disease.
  • Complications with medications and surgeries: Breathing problems associated with sleep apnea may make people more susceptible to complications during surgery and with certain anesthesia medications.
  • Liver problems: People with sleep apnea may be at an increased risk for developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

How is Sleep Apnea Treated?

If a truck driver experiences any of the above symptoms, he or she should be examined by a doctor. After a physical examination, the doctor may send the truck driver to a sleep center for testing. Depending on the results of the test, the truck driver may be diagnosed with sleep apnea. Although treatment options continue to develop, the most common treatment for sleep apnea is the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This device is worn while the person sleeps, and it increases the air pressure in the throat so that the airway does not collapse throughout the night. The CPAP prevents the throat muscles from relaxing when the person breathes in and out. As a result, the truck driver can achieve the deep, restorative sleep needed to safely operate a commercial truck and keep his or her attention focused on the road.

Another treatment option is the autonomous positive airway pressure (APAP). While the CPAP delivers a continuous pressure level of air, the APAP automatically adjusts the air pressure to meet the individual’s specific breathing needs, which can change throughout the night. According to the FMCSA, people with sleep apnea should use their CPAP or APAP for an average of four hours a night for at least 70 percent to follow the recommended therapy. When used correctly and consistently, both devices can help improve cardiac issues, blood pressure, diabetes, and other health issues.

Should Truck Drivers with Sleep Apnea Still be Allowed to Drive?

If a truck driver has been diagnosed with sleep apnea, it is important that they seek treatment as soon as possible. The FMCSA regulations do not address sleep apnea, but if a truck driver has a diagnosed health condition or something in their medical history that would impact their ability to safely operate a commercial motor vehicle (CMV), they may not be qualified to drive a CMV in interstate commerce. A truck driver who is diagnosed with moderate to severe sleep apnea will likely be disqualified to operate a CMV, as they are considered unsafe for driving. If the truck driver is caught driving, they could lose their commercial driver’s license (CDL). However, if the driver has been treated for sleep apnea or any other health condition, their status may be reinstated to medically qualified to drive. Fortunately, most sleep apnea cases can be treated successfully.

Baltimore Truck Accident Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Represent Victims of Drowsy Driving-Related Truck Accidents

If you were seriously injured in a truck accident involving a truck driver who has sleep apnea, you are urged to contact the Baltimore truck accident lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton as soon as possible. Many of these accidents can be prevented if truck drivers take the necessary steps to have their condition diagnosed and properly treated. Our dedicated legal team will conduct a thorough investigation to determine who is responsible for causing the accident and ensure that you receive the maximum financial compensation you deserve for your injuries. We will not stop fighting for you until you are completely satisfied. To schedule a free, confidential consultation, call us today at 800-547-4LAW (4529) or contact us online.

Our offices are conveniently located in BaltimoreColumbiaGlen Burnie, and Prince George’s County, where we represent victims throughout Maryland, including those in Anne Arundel CountyCarroll CountyHarford CountyHoward CountyMontgomery CountyPrince George’s CountyQueen Anne’s CountyMaryland’s Western CountiesSouthern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, as well as the communities of CatonsvilleEssexHalethorpeMiddle RiverRosedale, Gwynn OakBrooklandvilleDundalkPikesvilleParkvilleNottinghamWindsor MillLuthervilleTimoniumSparrows PointRidgewood, and Elkridge.