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Driving Risks and Obstructive Sleep Apnea

I have discussed the signs and treatment options for sleep apnea in previous blog posts, and while I’ve touched on the severity of the condition, I want to point out a new study that reveals that sleep apnea patients perform worse in a driving simulator test. It only makes sense that driving would be a major source of concern for those with sleep apnea, as exhaustion caused by interrupted sleep can make patients more prone to accidents.

The study, conducted by Doctors Akshay Dwarakanath and Mark Elliott of Saint James University Hospital in Leeds, UK, evaluated subjects of the driving simulation based on standard deviation of lane position (SDLP).

The simulation evaluated 129 untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) patients as well as 79 people without the condition who acted as controls. Various data were collected from the participants as evaluation factors, including their Epworth Sleepiness Score (ESS), oxygen desaturation index (ODI), body mass index (BMI), age, and years with their driver’s license.

All participants of the study completed a simulator run, with controls doing one run and OSA patients doing two. The results were categorized into pass, intermediate, and fail. The study revealed that lane deviation was much more common for OSA patients and OSA patients were also less likely to pass the test and more likely to fail than the controls. Specifically, 53% of controls passed, 47% were intermediate, and none failed. For the OSA patients, only 31% passed, 49% were intermediate, and 20% failed. OSA patients reported more episodes of nodding off behind the wheel than controls and admitted to a high chance of sleepiness while driving.

Obviously, these results are alarming in demonstrating the risks of driving with sleep apnea. The authors of the study report that untreated OSA patients are 2 to 6 times more likely to get in a car accident than controls. According to Medical Daily, insufficient sleep has been officially classified as a public health epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and driving on insufficient sleep produces similar risks to drunk driving. A 2014 report found that lack of sleep caused 6,400 traffic-related deaths in the United States, which is 21 percent of total traffic-related deaths in the U.S.

The authors of the test cite the results as evidence of the need for more objective tests to ensure the safety of all drivers. According to the authors, “There is considerable variability in the advice the clinicians give. Having an objective test would be a real advantage.”