Sleep Apnea Is Responsible For Numerous Incidents Of Excessive Sleepiness While Driving And Causing A Large Proportion Of Serious Accidents.

image of rescue helicopter

Sleep apnea is responsible for numerous incidents of excessive sleepiness while driving and causing a large proportion of serious accidents.

What Is The Definition Of Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is the temporary blockage of your airway during sleep and in the extreme may be deadly. It is also known as Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome-OSAS. Apnea means- “without breathing.” The blockage or obstruction is due to your relaxed tongue resting against the back of your throat.

What Is Sleep Apnea? It’s Not Just Snoring

Sleep apnea may masquerade as snoring, but it is much more worrisome since it’s known to interfere with restful sleep. If it occurs once in a while it’s not a big problem, but if every few minutes, every night, the toll is severe.

Rhythmic snoring is a vibration of the tongue and soft palate during inhalation and exhalation. It can be relatively quiet or it can wake the neighbor’s dog. Typically it is annoying, but not necessarily a medical concern.

Breathing interruption during common snoring is usually a response of your sleeping partner throwing a pillow over your face to muffle the pandemonium. It seldom results in a permanent solution, but may prompt fantasies that are much more drastic.

Image of airway blockage by the tongue.

Airway blockage by the tongue. Snoring sounds mean that air is still flowing to your lungs. Sleep apnea means it has stopped completely.

Your Body’s First Response

Your body is constantly monitoring the oxygen in your blood. As you attempt to breath, while this blockage occurs the oxygen level drops enough to set off low level alarms, signaling that there is a problem and you are partially aroused from sleep.

Your body’s first unconscious response to low level alarms is a repeated shift in your jaw position, an attempt to overcome the blockage. If it’s successful and breathing resumes, you relax and drift back into restful sleep.

The unconscious jaw repositioning effort to stop apnea, may be responsible for the destructive night time grinding of teeth or bruxism. It also alters the normal sleep leading to a sense of daytime fatigue.

I Still Can’t Breath

You tried escalating jaw movements unconsciously until you could breath and relax, but it didn’t work this time.

The blockage relief if unsuccessful, sees you gradually brought out of sleep with deep diaphragmatic movements. You are heaving until air movement is reestablished, accompanied by much noise and fanfare. Only sleeping partners know the horrible cessation of rhythmic noise, hopefully followed eventually by a cacophony of snorting and sucking sounds.

image of feeling of suffocation from sleep apnea

Sleep apnea can feel like suffocation.

The experience  of sleep apnea is like someone holding their hand or a plastic bag over your mouth and nose. In a few seconds survival mode kicks in. You can’t sleep through it. You will awaken and you may thrash about in the process if gets bad enough. It can be very scary.

When Apneic Episodes Strike-Panic Mode Takes Over

Take an inventory of what just happened:

  • 1) breathing blockage during relaxed, restful, sleep
  • 2) low oxygen detected by the brain
  • 3) jaw movement attempts to move the tongue and re-establish breathing
  • 4) continued blockage, heaving of your diaphragm with increased movement and wakefulness
  • 5) continued blockage leading to panicked attempts to start breathing with drastic increases in heart rate
  • 6) full wakefulness, high heart rates, rapid breathing, and a delay in the resumption of normal sleep.

Apneic episodes as they are called, always interfere with sleep. The more times per hour they occur the worse the symptoms are during daytime, due to loss of sleep. Sleepiness during everyday activities will interfere with your ability to think clearly, and will increase your reaction time to even the simplest of tasks and requests. Your fellow workers may notice this before you do.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Watch for any of a number of symptoms associated with sleep apnea. The greater the number you have the greater the concern, and need for you to see a doctor.

  • Snoring that is especially loud.
  • Any witnessed stopping in breathing during sleep
  • Any sudden awakening and panicked breathing
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Headaches on awakening-Insomnia
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Moodiness or irritability
  • Daytime drowsiness to excess
  • Falling asleep while working, viewing TV or waiting at a traffic light.

How Serious Is Sleep Apnea?

There are a host of medical conditions that are seen along with sleep apnea. It has been related to heart and blood vessel diseases, elevated blood pressure, diabetes, low vitamin D levels and even osteoporosis or bone loss.

Sleep apnea leads to daytime sleepiness and can be a significant cause of automobile accidents. So what’s the big deal with a little daytime sleepiness?

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness And Serious Automobile Accidents

Studies in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine[1]  revealed surveys in the UK, Australia, and Brazil have lead researchers to conclude that 16% to 20% of serious automobile accidents were connected to driver fatigue. And fatigue results from a loss of restful sleep. If sleep apnea is stealing your restful sleep, you are at risk for accidents.

To test the deterioration of drivers attention with sleep deprivation vehicles were equipped with sensors. The sensors tracked how well the drivers were able to stay on a steady course over the hours they were observed. The sensors were able to observe how frequently they had to correct right-left position in their lane and the amount of wobble within the lane.

Sleep deprivation lead to driving decision making, reaction time and stability that was similar to BAL blood alcohol levels of 0.05% to 0.10% and greater. These levels would be considered driving under the influence and being legally drunk. And it was all due to sleep deprivation.

Sleep apnea creates long term chronic sleep deprivation. It’s lead to a push for legislation requiring transportation “drivers” to be evaluated for sleep apnea syndrome. Commercial pilots, truck drivers, subway drivers and train engineers are viewed with ever increasing scrutiny when it comes to time driving without rest.

Just pick up any paper or listen to the news and you will begin to wonder which of those accidents was caused by sleep apnea.

A Tragic Personal Story

I remember a friend who was returning from Truckee, CA to Blairsden, CA one evening. She worked in a restaurant in Truckee and had made the drive countless times. It was a cold winter evening and I can’t help but think of what it was like when she went off the road. There was no explanation for a single car accident that evening as I recall.

I wonder what was going through her mind…

It’s cold, freezing cold. Something warm’s on my face. Tastes like metal. Didn’t put it on my seatbelt did I? My head hurts. There’s snow everywhere. I’m upside down. I can’t feel my legs.  It’s night. The radio is still on. There’s a hint of light. I hope someone finds me. I smell gasoline. Maybe in the morning. Will someone find me? I’m cold, freezing cold…

Unfortunately her vehicle was not discovered until mid-April, four months after she failed to return home that night. It was discovered off the road, about a hundred feet down the hillside. In the Sierras, near Truckee, CA snow storms are frequently measured in feet not inches. It wouldn’t have taken long to have erased all traces or tracks that search parties would look for. I wonder if fatigue from something like sleep apnea could be responsible for the accident. We will never know for sure.

Do you ever experience falling asleep at a traffic light or while driving on a highway at night? Do you ever wonder how far did I drive while I nodded off? Perhaps you have even driven off the road and survived. You are very fortunate to have survived.

See Your Doctor If You Suspect You Have Sleep Apnea

image of man sleeping while wearing a CPAP device

Not everyone can tolerate a CPAP device for sleep apnea. Your holistic dentist can help you with an alternative dental appliance for snoring and sleep apnea.

Don’t brush it off. See your doctor and find out if you are a candidate for sleep apnea therapy. A CPAP device may be suggested by your physician. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. The device covers your nose or both your mouth and nose supplying air at a pressure high enough to maintain a constant opening for breathing. If you cannot tolerate a CPAP, or want to try an alternative first alternatives then see your holistic dentist.

Your holistic dentist can assist your physician with dental appliances that can make for a comfortable and restful night’s sleep. Your life could depend on it.

Link to The Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS) It measures your general level of sleepiness. It might allow you to start a conversation with your doctor that could save your life.

[1]Int J Prev Med. 2013 Mar; 4(3): 246–257.