Uncontrolled sleep apnea poses significant risks to road safety

Watch the video above: Left untreated, drivers with sleep apnea are significantly more likely than others to wind up in a motor vehicle collision

SASKATOON – While human beings tend to spend about a third of their lives in bed, not all Canadians have been able to rest easy.

“It’s frankly as common as many of the other diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure. At least 12 per cent of adults have obstructive sleep apnea,” said Dr. John Gjevre, medical director with the Saskatoon Health Region Sleep Disorders Laboratory.

Obstructive sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder, is caused by a blockage of the upper airway. As a person drifts deeper into sleep, they go through REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep cycles.

Muscles tend to relax, including those at the back of the throat.

“It is something that is really dependent upon three major medical issues. One is your age, one is your weight and thirdly, genetics,” Gjevre explained.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) is the most commonly used method of treating obstructive sleep apnea. The machines work by blowing room air down the back of your throat using a gentle amount of pressure.

They typically cost around $1,500, but the Government of Saskatchewan loans them to diagnosed residents free of charge.

Another option is a mandibular advancement device, which is a custom made dental device that thrusts the lower jaw forward.

“Generally speaking, the surgeries don’t work very well with the exception of major jaw reconstructive surgery, where they actually break the jaw and move things forward. Not very popular,” Dr. Gjevre told Global News.

He said there are a number of questions individuals should ask themselves if they suspect they have sleep apnea.

Consider whether your spouse has seen you stop breathing in your sleep, whether you snore loudly each night waking your partner or whether you wake up in the morning feeling run down and still tired.

“We would suspend a driver if they did have uncontrolled sleep apnea, especially if they are a commercial driver and carry passengers,” said Sandy Crighton, manager of driver programs with SGI.

“In Saskatchewan, all physicians, therapists and nurse practitioners are required to report any condition that can affect a driver’s ability to drive and this would be one of them.”

Crighton says SGI requests information from the driver’s physician to determine whether they need to go for a further assessment at a sleep clinic.

If the doctor recommends that the driver has daytime sleepiness and should not be behind the wheel, SGI will suspend their license until that person has completed a sleep study and a report is issued to them.

“If you don’t report the condition to us and an accident is a result of that medical condition, your coverage can be denied,” she told Global News.

According to the Canadian Lung Association, a person with sleep apnea is seven times more likely to be involved in a car crash than other drivers.

© 2014 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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