Sleep Apnea and Truck Driving: What you need to know

Sleep apnea is one of the biggest problems facing the commercial trucking industry today.

According to the most recent studies, about one-third of truck drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea, and drivers with this ailment are five times more likely to be in a preventable crash.

If you’re a trucker or are planning to become one, it’s important that you know the facts about sleep apnea. Here’s a basic overview of this ailment and the impact it has on truck drivers.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea, also called obstructive sleep apnea, is a respiratory condition that causes breathing interruptions of 10 seconds or longer while sleeping, with as many as 400 such pauses occurring in a single night. As sleep apnea affects the quality of a person’s sleep, it can lead to a spectrum of daytime symptoms, including:

  • Irritability
  • Feelings of depression
  • Morning headaches and nausea
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Excessive drowsiness

The last two symptoms in particular — difficulty concentrating and excessive drowsiness — are extremely problematic for truck drivers. Sleep apnea makes it difficult for them to stay awake, focus their eyes and quickly react when driving.

What causes sleep apnea?

The main risk factors for sleep apnea are obesity and anatomical features like a thick neck, recessed chin, small jaw or narrow throat. Additional factors include nasal congestion, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

The high rates of sleep apnea among truckers may be due to the sedentary nature of the job, which can lead to obesity.

How is sleep apnea treated?

The most common treatment for sleep apnea involves the CPAP machine, which pumps air into a mask worn over the mouth and/or nose during sleep. This helps to keep the airways open and prevent breathing pauses.

Most cases of sleep apnea can be treated successfully, causing the ailment’s symptoms to greatly subside or disappear. Truck drivers with sleep apnea who undergo treatment should recover their ability to be alert, focused and quick to react when behind the wheel.

Truckers who suspect they may have sleep apnea should get tested immediately to ensure that they can safely perform their job. Moreover, note that certain truck companies in North America now require drivers who have a high body mass index (in some cases, 35) to undergo mandatory testing for sleep apnea. Testing is performed at a sleep centre, where the person’s sleep is monitored overnight.

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