Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder that disrupts sleep hundreds of times every night. It's caused by:
- Obesity, which causes flabby fat deposits in the throat area that can block the air passages.
- Enlarged tonsils and adenoids that block air passages.
- Deformed or too large uvula. This is the fleshy lobe at the back of the throat.
- Abnormality of the soft palate or roof of the mouth.
- Too large or thick tongue.
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or heartburn, when the stomach acid sometimes moves up into the esophagus Stomach acid can produce spasms in the larynx that can block the flow of air to and from the lungs.
OSA can lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. It can also lead to excessive daytime sleepiness. An article in Medical News Today warns that: "it also increases the risk of traffic accidents by seven times. OSA has been estimated to be responsible for 5 to 10 % of all motor vehicle accidents."
Some European countries take a person's sleep apnea into consideration when issuing a driver's license. More countries are being urged to do the same. This practice would also be useful on this side of the ocean.
The National Sleep Foundation tells us: " Some signs of sleep apnea might include daytime sleepiness, falling asleep at inappropriate times, loud snoring, depression, irritability, sexual dysfunction, morning headaches, frequent nighttime urination, lack of concentration, and memory impairment.
If that isn't unsettling enough, 28% of commercial truck drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea according to a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the American Transportation Research Institute of the American Trucking Associations."
Sleep apnea isn't the only cause of drowsy driving. Other sleep disorders, including insomnia, also result in sleepy drivers on our highways. But lifestyle could well be the culprit. We live in a society that can work - or play - twenty-four hours a day. Many do choose to do this, or a reduced variation. How many people these days get the full eight hours of sleep required to keep mind and body healthy?
Of all the causes of falling asleep at the wheel, sleep apnea is something that can be detected and controlled. It won't be easy to have every driver tested for sleep apnea. But then, neither is it easy to be the accident victim of a drowsy driver. Nor is it easy to be the driver who kills someone because he/she fell asleep at the wheel.
If someone you know has trouble staying awake on the highway, why not suggest a visit to a sleep specialist. It can't hurt, and you may just save someone's life.