Sleep Apnea and Safe Driving: What You Should Know

Sleep apnea is believed to affect over 22 million Americans — though this number could easily be higher, as many cases go undiagnosed. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which the body’s airways close off during sleep (such as when the soft palate closes against the back of the throat), cutting off the supply of oxygen. Eventually, the brain will partially rouse the person who is asleep to signal for breathing to resume.

These incidents occur repeatedly throughout the night — in severe cases, a person could experience hundreds of these nighttime awakenings. However, because the person only partially awakens, they typically don’t remember what happened in the morning.

What they may notice, however, is feeling completely exhausted even after a “full” night of rest. This fatigue can significantly interfere with daily life — including increasing the risk for traffic accidents.

Sleep Apnea and Driving Risk

man driving car during golden hour

A recent study from Washington School of Medicine at St. Louis has found that even mild sleep apnea (which is defined as five to 15 sleep apnea incidents per hour) can impair a person’s ability to make safe driving decisions. The study tracked over 100,000 driving trips using GPS data loggers to get measurements of aggressive or unsafe driving behaviors, such as hard braking or speeding. The study also monitored participants’ sleep patterns to identify the severity of sleep apnea.

The study found that for each eight breathing interruptions someone experienced in an hour, their likelihood of an “adverse” or dangerous driving event increased 1.7 times.

As Brendan Lucey, MD, one of the study’s authors explained, “These findings suggest that we might want a lower threshold to evaluate older adults for sleep apnea and track their breathing interruptions. If their conditions worsen by just eight interruptions an hour, that could have significant adverse effects on their driving and their risk of suffering serious injury.”

Study co-senior author Ganesh M. Babulal, PhD, OTD added, “The more tired you are, the less attention you have to deploy to the task at hand, especially if it is novel and constantly changing.”

There is always some level of risk associated with driving, but if a lack of quality sleep is interfering with your decision-making abilities, the risk for a serious accident goes up significantly. This can be especially problematic for older adults, who are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea and more likely to be seriously injured if they are in an auto accident.

Identifying Sleep Apnea

man sitting on bench

As the study’s authors noted, a big part of the problem with sleep apnea and driving behaviors is that many cases of obstructive sleep apnea go undiagnosed. A big part of this is because most individuals only partially awaken when they experience a sleep apnea event.

Fortunately, there are ways to determine if you potentially have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is often noticed by the person’s partner, who may be disturbed by loud snoring that starts and stops suddenly. They may also notice you gasping for breath or making choking sounds during sleep — common indicators of obstructive sleep apnea.

In addition, sleep apnea typically manifests through several symptoms that you will experience during the day. Excess fatigue is a common indicator that you are suffering from sleep apnea or another sleep disorder, particularly if you are getting what would normally be considered a healthy seven to nine hours of sleep. You may be so tired that you fall asleep during normal activities like watching TV, or you might have trouble concentrating on work or other tasks.

Many people who suffer from sleep apnea will experience a morning headache that goes away after a few hours. You may also have a dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up. Sleep apnea can also lead to resistant hypertension, where blood pressure stays elevated even after taking medications. Sleep apnea can also make you more likely to become irritable, moody, or depressed.

If you suspect that you are struggling with sleep apnea, schedule a sleep study. Sleep studies typically occur in a specialized facility where doctors can monitor your breathing patterns, brainwaves, heart rate, and other vitals during sleep. At-home tests have also become more readily available in recent years. 

Based on the results of these studies, sleep specialists can determine whether you are suffering from sleep apnea or another disorder, and recommend the appropriate treatment so you can get the quality rest you need to drive safe — and take care of your other daily tasks!

Get The Equipment You Need From Help Medical Supplies

When you’re driving, you’re not just responsible for your own safety. Your actions have a direct impact on your passengers and anyone else who is on the road. Getting quality sleep each night may not seem like it would make that much of a difference, but as the new study reveals, taking steps to mitigate sleep apnea is key to safer driving decisions.

CPAP machines are the gold standard for treating obstructive sleep apnea, but the price point can be a cause of concern for individuals without insurance coverage. This is where Help Medical Supplies can make a difference. We offer discounted prices on CPAP machines and supplies from leading brands such as ResMed and 3B Medical. Shoppers can also enjoy free shipping on orders of $89 and up, as well as available financing.

When you sleep better, you’ll feel better and drive better. Take control of your sleep and you’ll have one less thing to worry about while driving.

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