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Sleep Apnea Symptoms May Be Understated Among Commercial Truck Drivers: Study

white semi on the highway
white semi on the highway

Sleep apnea may affect as many as 40 percent of truck drivers, according to recent research, but a new study suggests they may be underreporting its effects.

The new study, which will be presented at the European Respiratory Society's Annual Congress this week, shows that commercial vehicle drivers are more likely to understate their daytime sleepiness from the condition than people who don't work in that field. Obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by having pauses in breathing or shallow breathing while sleeping to create disrupted sleep

The researchers hypothesized that it may have to do with the fact that commercial truck drivers are afraid their sleep apnea will lead to them losing their jobs.

"Although this is very difficult to prove, both the group of drivers and the group of non-drivers began the study with a similar number of disturbances during the night," study researcher Dr. Werner Strobel, from the University Hospital in Switzerland, said in a statement. "You would therefore expect their reports of sleepiness to be similar to begin with, however the drivers estimated their levels of sleepiness as lower than the non-drivers."

The study included 37 people who were commercial vehicle drivers, as well as 74 non-commercial vehicle drivers. All of the study participants had sleep apnea and they all had similar BMIs, age, and sleep disturbances.

The study participants answered a questionnaire to gauge their daytime sleepiness, which provided each individual's Epworth Sleepiness Score out of 24 points (where a higher score means higher daytime fatigue).

The researchers found that the commercial vehicle drivers reported an average of 8.1, while the non commercial drivers reported an average score of 11.0 -- even though both groups of people said that they had about the same number of night time disturbances.

Then, everyone went through six weeks of treatment with CPAP. Even still, the drivers reported lower scores of daytime sleepiness -- 4.8, compared with 7.7 by the non-commercial drivers.

Plus, the commercial drivers were more likely to make unscheduled clinic visits (which the researchers said might be because of sleep apnea symptoms), and were less likely to receive the CPAP therapy for the full six months than the non-commercial drivers.

Because this study was presented at a conference and has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, the results should be perceived as preliminary.

Recently, a study in the journal SLEEP showed that many truck drivers may not even realize that they have sleep apnea. Of the 517 Australian long-distance truck drivers in that study, 4.4 percent said they'd been diagnosed with sleep apnea, even though when researchers tested them for the condition, 41 percent of them had it.

Sleep apnea, which is more common in people who are overweight, can be dangerous while on the road because it leads to daytime drowsiness -- proving potentially fatal for both truck drivers and others on the road. There is even a sleep apnea page on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website detailing the dangers of the condition.