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You’re Twice As Likely To Get Into A Car Accident If You Have Sleep Apnea

We all know the experience of a little daytime sleepiness after a poor night of rest, but when the drowsiness becomes chronic the stakes are much higher. Sleep apnea is a serious condition that has been connected to poor performance on the job, irritability, and grogginess, but what happens when you get behind the wheel? Sleep apnea and car accidents are a serious risk. Here’s what you need to know.

What is sleep apnea?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have officially classified lack of sleep as a public health crisis. For most of us, this may fall under the category of chronic sleep deprivation, but for the estimated 25 million people in the U.S. who suffer from sleep apnea, the condition is much more serious.

There are two types of sleep apnea: central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea.

Central sleep apnea is the less common of the two. In central sleep apnea, the brain essentially “forgets” to send signals to breathe to the muscles that control this action.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder that affects more men than women (low estimates note that it occurs in 24% of men and 9% of women).

OSA occurs when the throat muscles relax so much that airways become blocked. The brain feels the oxygen deprivation and wakes the sleeper. This waking is abrupt and often accompanied by a loud, gasping breath.

For those with mild obstructive sleep apnea, these incidents may only occur once or twice a night. For more severe obstructive sleep apnea, sleepers may stop breathing five to ten times an hour, every hour, every night.

What’s the relationship between sleep apnea and car accidents?

The connection between sleep apnea and car accidents is clear. Since the main symptom of sleep apnea is daytime drowsiness, it stands to reason that driving would be affected.

Consider the following sleep apnea and car accident statistics:

  • Commercial truck drivers are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea and have a correspondingly high rate of drowsy driving accidents
  • A 2015 study found that those with untreated sleep apnea were two and a half times more likely to cause a car accident
  • According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drowsy driving causes 328,000 car accidents with 6,400 fatalities each year (compare this with just over 10,000 traffic fatalities caused by drunk drivers in the U.S. annually)

Even some of the earliest studies confirm that sleep apnea and car accidents are clearly linked. In some cases, sleep apnea sufferers further complicated these results with higher rates of alcohol and drug consumption that also contributed to their rate of accident.

More recent studies have increased the estimate of car accidents that occur due to sleep deprivation, placing the risk at two to six times the rate of those who are rested. Fewer than 31% of adults with untreated sleep apnea in the study passed a driving test in a simulator that tracked lane deviation and alertness.

Can I still drive with sleep apnea?

While there are not currently any sleep apnea driving restrictions in the U.S., drivers in the UK are required to report their sleep apnea diagnosis and can be fined for their involvement in an accident if they don’t.

Whether or not there are legal sleep apnea driving restrictions in the U.S., it is important to seek treatment for your sleep apnea to reduce your risk of harm to yourself and others. You don’t want your drowsy driving to permanently impact your life (or potentially end someone else’s). There is help and treatment for this condition.

Until your sleep apnea is better managed, avoid the road on drowsier days and look into rideshare or public transit options.

Treat your sleep apnea to reduce your risk

Car accidents caused by drowsy driving are not the only health issue that sleep apnea can cause. OSA and chronic sleep deprivation are associated with much more serious health risks.

These include:

Treating your sleep apnea can literally save your life. If you experience common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea that include not only excessive daytime fatigue and sleepiness but also any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor about sleep apnea.

  • Snoring
  • Fogginess and difficulty concentrating
  • Noticeable cessation of breath followed by a choking intake of air
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Morning headache
  • Loss of sexual drive
  • Nighttime sweating unrelated to another condition (e.g., menopause)
  • High blood pressure

Because obesity is a risk factor for sleep apnea, focusing on lowering your BMI can be a great first step.

Sleep apnea treatments

Another common treatment for sleep apnea is a CPAP machine. This machine provides continuous positive airway pressure (hence the name) all night long to keep airways open. A mask fits over the mouth and nose to gently deliver air.

Another treatment that has some significant advantages over the CPAP machine is dental sleep apnea devices. These devices resemble a sports mouth guard. A custom-fit dental device worn at night repositions your lower jaw and tongue while you sleep to keep airways open.

Studies have found that dental devices for obstructive sleep apnea can be just as effective as the CPAP machine. This finding is important because many patients struggle with CPAP machine compliance. The CPAP machine is not silent, and many partners find it difficult to sleep in the same room. The mask that delivers air can be uncomfortable and distracting for light sleepers.

Traveling with a CPAP machine is also challenging. While portable CPAP machines have become more lightweight and smaller for travel, they still take up room in your carry-on. For all of these reasons, patients may not use a CPAP machine every night, or they may stop using it after a period of time. There is no evidence to suggest that sleep apnea goes away without significant lifestyle changes or treatment, so non-compliance increases the risk of sleep apnea and car accidents.

In contrast, a dental device is portable, silent, and easy to slip into a purse or carry-on. The rate of compliance is much higher, which means the treatment can be more effective.

If you (or your partner) think you might have sleep apnea, take action. The connection between sleep apnea and car accidents is real. Your sleep apnea dentist can help you understand all of your options, including dental devices that are comfortable and easy to use.

Get in touch with the sleep apnea dentists at AZ Sleep today!

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