Poor Sleep Impacts Safety at Work and on the Road

Not getting enough sleep puts us at risk for health issues as well as accidents, says Dr. Beth Hamann.



Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) emphasize that we are not getting enough sleep, which is linked to serious health consequences such as obesity, depression and heart disease. Sleep disorders affect 50 to 70 million Americans, such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), but as many as 80 percent of these adults don't know they are affected. OSA not only impacts the quality of sleep and overall health, but also our safety in the workplace on the road.

OSA is a condition characterized by complete and partial airway obstructions which can occur when the tongue and muscles relax during sleep, the lower jaw falls back toward the throat or the airway becomes blocked. When a person stops snoring and is silent for seconds or minutes, the brain causes the body to jerk with a loud snort, cough or gasp in an attempt to wake the sleeper so breathing will resume. Once asleep again, the muscles relax and the airway becomes blocked anew. This cycle can occur hundreds of times per night. Additional warning signs of OSA include headaches, high blood pressure, daytime sleepiness, insomnia, diabetes and depression.

Symptoms such as daytime sleepiness can lead to an increased risk of vehicular crash. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that untreated OSA is a factor in vehicle crashes up to three times more often than the general public. Among those driving for a living, OSA can be particularly dangerous, yet data from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggests that 20 percent of commercial drivers may suffer from it.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine is working with Congress to develop regulations to ensure the health and safety of all drivers. In other working environments, OSA can lead to fatigue, morning headaches, difficulty concentrating and a foggy memory, all of which could affect the ability to perform a job and even lead to safety violations in a number of professions. A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association surveyed nearly 5,000 police officers and estimated that 33 percent of them had sleep apnea, and that the disorder was significantly associated with an increased risk of poor performance and safety errors.

Fortunately, patients may see a dramatic reduction in symptoms of OSA with treatment. If chronic poor sleep is making someone sleepy on the road or at work, they should consider asking their physician for a sleep study that will determine if they have sleep apnea.

Treatment options include lifestyle changes, surgery or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Also, oral appliance therapy works to hold the jaw in a position that allows the airway to remain as open and firm as possible during sleep, thus preventing snoring and interruptions. The appliance is similar to an athletic mouth guard, but less bulky, and is covered by most insurance plans and Medicare.

Dr. Beth HamannBeth Hamann, DDS, is co-owner of the Koala Center for Sleep Disorders, located at 4235 N. 32nd St., Ste. A, in Phoenix. For a free sleep apnea screening, call 602-357-9845. For more information and to take the online Epworth Sleepiness Scale test for apnea, visit KoalaBiltmore.com.

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