While motor vehicle accidents are unexpected events, several factors can increase the likelihood that one will occur, including a driver who has consumed alcohol, is speeding or driving recklessly, or has been driving for a long time without a break. Certain health conditions like obstructive sleep apnea can also impair your ability to drive safely.
If you’ve been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, it’s important to understand how the condition can raise your likelihood of being involved in traffic accidents. It’s also important to understand that sleep apnea is an underdiagnosed yet treatable oral health issue, and your dentist and general physician can provide you with a diagnosis and treatment plan. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be in a better position to protect yourself and your fellow drivers.
Obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by repeated breathing interruptions during sleep. These breathing interruptions occur due to a narrow or collapsed airway. When your brain detects the resulting imbalance in your blood oxygen levels, it signals your body to wake up. Sleep apnea can cause as many as 30 sleep interruptions per hour, so it’s no surprise that one of the major symptoms of the condition is excessive daytime sleepiness.
Daytime sleepiness is simply the tendency to fall asleep or doze off outside of your normal resting hours, often in inappropriate situations. One example would be falling asleep while driving a car. Research conducted with driving simulators has confirmed that the performance impairment in drivers with sleep apnea is similar to the impairment caused by sleep deprivation or excessive alcohol consumption. Motor vehicle crashes tend to be more frequent in untreated sleep apnea patients and are usually accompanied by more severe injuries.
Many warning signs can signal that a sleepy driver is at risk of causing an accident. If you notice that you’re blinking more than usual, yawning, nodding at the wheel, missing turns or exits, or experiencing brief “gaps” in your drive, it may be a good idea to pull off the road. If you’re too tired to drive, you may also struggle to maintain a constant speed or steady position on the road.
In these circumstances, you might try strategies to combat your drowsiness, such as drinking caffeinated beverages and rolling the window down. While these measures may be effective for a temporary period of time, the safest option is to pull over and rest for 15-20 minutes or, if possible, change drivers.
Whether diagnosed or undetected, obstructive sleep apnea is a significant risk factor for motor vehicle accidents. With this in mind, it’s important to speak to a medical professional as soon as possible if you experience any symptoms of sleep apnea, such as excessive daytime sleepiness, severe morning headaches, snoring, or gasping awake during sleep. Your dentist may be able to prescribe a simple oral appliance that you can wear to relieve your symptoms during sleep. Early diagnosis of sleep apnea can not only help you enjoy a better night’s sleep, but also improve your safety behind the wheel.