In the last article, I wrote about how OTR drivers make consequential decisions every day, described how bad the lack of sleep can negatively affect decision making, and then showed how the life of an OTR driver is almost uniquely qualified to break every sleep rule.
There are things you can change and things you cannot change. One of the things you can change is sleep quality if you have sleep apnea. And you may not know you have sleep apnea. I know I didn’t.
Sleep apnea is a condition where, during sleep, a narrowing or closure of the upper airway causes repeated sleep disturbances leading to poor sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness. Since excessive sleepiness can be a consequence of sleeping disturbances, drivers with sleep apnea have compromised driving performance leading to increases in the risks of crashes.
One of the interesting things about sleep apnea is that it’s extremely difficult to self-diagnose. For one, you don’t fully wake up in the night to remember, but also, studies have found that a driver self-reporting they are sleepy in the day is not a reliable predictor of whether they have apnea. But almost every objective test shows a clear relationship between performance and the severity of sleep apnea.
There are several things that sleep specialists look for to determine whether to test for sleep apnea: daytime sleepiness, fatigue, being overweight (is that politically incorrect? If so, make that “heavy-set”), snoring, and family history.
I didn’t seem to have any of the indicators except family history (my father) and snoring.
But that may not be quite true. When I left home in the early 1980’s, I was fortunate to find a job about 30 miles from my grandfather who lived in a tiny Oklahoma town. Born in the late 1890’s, he worked as a farmer, a pipe fitter, and the man who took care of an oil lease over multiple oil wells. This was not a white collar job. He checked every pump every day, climbed the metal stairs to every tank to measure the daily output. He had a pipe threader on his pickup’s back bumper that he seemed to use every third day I was with him. He worked until he was 80 years old; fatigue was not an issue.
Suffice it to say, he didn’t meet the criteria for sleep apnea, but his snoring kept the livestock agitated the next farm over at night.
And so when my immediate family started getting noise complaints from the neighbors, and worse, I started getting complaints from the wife, due to my snoring, I was checked for sleep apnea. This involved going to an office, being hooked up to about 30 wires, and then going to sleep.
In my case, they determined pretty quickly that I had severe sleep apnea and they brought in a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP) and back to sleep I went. The machine keeps your airway open so that you’re not waking up 45 times an hour (even if you don’t consciously remember waking up).
After all the results were in, I obtained a CPAP for home. It is quiet, doesn’t bother me at night, the snoring is gone, and I have a lot more energy in the day.
As a commercial driver, if you find yourself extremely sleepy in the day, have been told you drown out the reefer in the next space with your snoring, or seem unduly fatigued, you might want to get checked for sleep apnea and take the steps to ensure that when you can sleep, you do sleep.