Does this sound like you? You get at least seven hours of sleep yet wake up feeling like you’re at the end of an exhausting workday. If you have a partner, you’ve been told your loud snoring keeps them up or even chases them from the bedroom so they can get some sleep.
You may have sleep apnea, a chronic and dangerous disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep, starving the body of oxygen. An apnea is a pause in breathing that lasts 10 seconds or longer. People with severe cases of sleep apnea can experience 30 or more apneas per hour.Sleep apnea is often characterized by loud snoring followed by gasping and choking. People wake up with no memory of their struggle to breathe. Sleep apnea is common and under reported. Estimates place the number of Americans with sleep apnea at between 18-22 million. Many of these sufferers are unaware. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, 80 percent of Americans who have sleep apnea are undiagnosed.
Anyone can develop sleep apnea, but people who are overweight, especially those with excess fat around the neck, are particularly susceptible. A neck size greater than 16 inches in women and greater than 17 inches in men is a red flag for sleep apnea. Aging and unhealthy lifestyle, including eating habits that increase risk for weight gain and smoking, can also contribute to developing sleep apnea.
Why Is Sleep Apnea Dangerous?
Sleep apnea can cause excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), low energy and fatigue, all of which can be factors in deadly traffic accidents and can impact workplace safety. Lack of sleep can sometimes be a factor in workplace accidents. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleepiness clouds judgement and slows reaction time. A study that examined the effects of sleepiness in the workplace found that men who reported both snoring and EDS (the main symptoms of sleep apnea) were at increased risk for occupational accidents. No significant increased risk was found for those who only snored or only had EDS. Sleep apnea can also increase risk for a number of chronic conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and depression.
“Routinely not getting restful sleep is not something to ignore. It can jeopardize your health and safety and the health and safety of everyone around you,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “If you are habitually waking up tired, it’s important to let your health care provider know so you can find out if sleep apnea is the cause. Treatments are available that can benefit you, your loved ones and your coworkers.”
There are three main types of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive sleep apnea: the most common form occurs when the tongue and throat muscles relax, blocking the airway
- Central sleep apnea: the brain doesn’t signal the body to breathe
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome: a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea
Do You Have Sleep Apnea?
Although sleep apnea almost always causes loud and frequent snoring, you can snore and not have sleep apnea. Undergoing a study that monitors blood oxygen levels, respiration, brainwaves, leg movement and the number of apneas experienced during a sleep cycle is the only way to find out if you have this condition. Most insurance plans cover sleep studies but rules can vary. For example, some require a home sleep test before covering an in-lab test. Deductibles and copays vary. A sleep study can cost several thousand dollars, so find out what your financial responsibility is before undergoing the test. Your health and welfare fund can provide information on your plan’s specific benefits.
A number of treatment options are available that can address sleep apnea. The continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which provides a steady stream of air through a mask during sleep, is the most commonly prescribed treatment. Other options include special mouthpieces designed to keep the upper airway open and surgical implants that stimulate the muscles that open the airways during sleep. Your health care provider can help you decide which treatment is best for you.
What Else Can You Do?
Healthy lifestyle choices may not cure but can help treat most cases of sleep apnea. Your health care provider may recommend the following:
- Heart healthy eating: Choosing the right foods can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions that sleep apnea can aggravate.
- Get regular physical activity: Just 2.5 hours a week of moderate-intensity exercise such as a brisk walk or yard work can help you lose weight and help you get a better night’s sleep.
- Develop healthy sleeping habits: In addition to getting seven hours of sleep, try going to bed and getting up at the same time every day and avoiding caffeine at least four hours before bed.
- Quit smoking: Smoking causes inflammation, which can aggravate sleep apnea and contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease.
The LHSFNA’s online Publications Catalogue offers several publications that can help educate LIUNA members about leading a healthy lifestyle. These include our Weight & Your Health and How to Assess Your Weight pamphlets. The Fund also has materials that can help Laborers quit tobacco and distributes Tobacco Quit Kits to members on an individual basis. Contact the Health Promotion Division at 202-628-5465 for more information.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]