Study Highlights Risk of Sleep Apnea Treatment Noncompliance

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition that causes the upper airway to become partially blocked, resulting in shallow breathing and interrupted sleeping patterns. It can be difficult to diagnose, especially in people who sleep alone and are unaware of the episodes. During waking hours, these sleep disturbances can cause people with sleep apnea to become very drowsy. As a result, sleep apnea can be especially dangerous for people who drive for a living.

The good news is there are effective treatments for sleep apnea.

The bad news is not all drivers adhere to the treatments. A recent study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute revealed just how dangerous it can be for drivers with sleep apnea to neglect their treatment. The study found that “truck drivers who have obstructive sleep apnea and who do not attempt to adhere to a mandated treatment program have a fivefold increase in the risk of a severe crash.” Bear in mind that these treatment regiments are mandated by individual trucking companies, and not state or federal legislation.

The study compared drivers with sleep apnea to a control group of drivers without the condition. Drivers with sleep apnea who adhered to their mandated treatment had a 1.5 percent chance of getting in a preventable serious accident. This was roughly equivalent to the drivers in the control group. Drivers with sleep apnea who didn’t adhere to their treatment, however, ran a seven percent chance of getting in a similar accident.

“These results are important because, currently, drivers who are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea at a specific trucking firm with an internal mandated treatment program, and who choose not to accept treatment, can just quit and hire on with a firm that does not have such a program,” said study co-author Jeff Hickman. “Given the amount of job turnover in parts of the trucking industry, we can reasonably assume these drivers are going to drive for another firm. Essentially, as long as specific rigorous screening standards for obstructive sleep apnea are not in place, these drivers, if they remain untreated, are likely to remain a risk on the roadways.”

These findings are particularly timely, as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently announced that they were considering enacting new restrictions for truck drivers who suffer from sleep apnea. “For individuals with [obstructive sleep apnea], eight hours of sleep can be less restful or refreshing than four hours of ordinary, uninterrupted sleep,” said a spokesperson from the administration in a statement. If the FMCA does establish these new restrictions, they will likely require truckers with sleep apnea to receive medical treatment in order to continue driving.