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Trucker Health Series: What Is Sleep Apnea?

Welcome to the first installment in our trucker health series, where we will examine fitness, diet, lifestyle, and all things related to being a fit and healthy truck driver.

In the first of our series we are going to take a look at sleep apnea. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) up to 18 million people have sleep apnea.

According to a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) study almost a full third of commercial truck drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea. But it’s not just a problem that truckers have to deal with. People who work in professions in which they are sedentary for large amounts of time – like office workers, airline pilots and commercial vehicle operators – are susceptible to sleep apnea.

But what is sleep apnea, and although almost a third of truckers have it, how does it directly apply to the trucking industry? Let’s dig a little deeper.

The Details

Sleep apnea is a condition in which muscular relaxation during sleep constricts the airway. During this process bre­­athing can be interrupted by up to several seconds at a time. Generally, this will be accompanied by loud snoring and poor sleep. Sleep apnea can also be followed by daytime drowsiness and problems concentrating.

Those most at risk for sleep apnea are people with a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 30 or greater and a neck circumference of 17 inches or more. But that’s not all. Sleep apnea can also affect people based on simple things like:

  • A family history of the condition
  • A small upper airway
  • Chin size or placement
  • Jaw size or placement
  • Being age 40 or older
  • Ethnicity

The fact is sleep apnea is a common condition that affects a large number of people. Many people who suffer from sleep apnea have no idea they even have it.

While losing a little bit of sleep may not sound like that big of a deal, sleep apnea affects more than just your sleep. This condition can also put you at risk for other health problems like diabetes and heart disease.

How Trucking’s Affected

So now we know that people working in certain professions are susceptible to sleep apnea, but how bad is it? And what can we do?

According to an internal study conducted by the national trucking company Schneider National Inc., at least 17 percent of their commercial truck drivers were affected by sleep apnea. They ended up creating an initiative to help their employees diagnose and treat the disease without exorbitant costs.

What was it that caused Schneider National to devote serious time and resources to this issue? While it could be considered a matter of safety, this also is an area of governmental regulation. Many may not realize that truck drivers who are diagnosed with sleep apnea are required by the FMCSA to be disqualified until the diagnosis is treated or ruled out.

But is this fair? Some say no. Surely, there are truck drivers who have millions of accident-free miles, but once it’s shown they have sleep apnea, they are shut down. The question is: If they were okay to drive yesterday and all the millions of miles before yesterday, why are they suddenly disqualified now? After all, it’s likely they have been living with the condition for years.

According to a Stanford University Medical School study, out of forty-two accidents caused by commercial truck drivers, only seven were fatigue related. Even so, does this mean we shouldn’t be paying attention to an important health issue that affects a portion of our industry? Absolutely not.

If you believe you may suffer from sleep apnea, check out this handy medical resource, which explains in great detail the different forms of the condition and how to treat it. Otherwise, if your fleet doesn’t offer a program to address it, seek the counsel of a qualified medical professional. But most of all, don’t be ashamed of sleep apnea, as it affects millions of others just like you.

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