There’s a danger facing as many as 50% of truck drivers in the United States. It’s not a danger they can see — but many of them may feel it. Its effects can lead to potentially fatal consequences, both on and off the road.
That danger is sleep apnea, and two transportation organizations have partnered to help drivers detect it and seek treatment.
Resonea, a sleep health technology company, and Challenger Motor Freight, a privately owned transportation and logistics company, recently announced a sleep initiative for commercial truck drivers that includes education and voluntary sleep apnea screenings using Resonea’s DROWZLE smartphone app.
“We’re delighted to join with the talented staff of Resonea to help bring innovative sleep education and testing to the motor carrier industry,” noted Challenger President and CEO Jim Peeples.
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which a person’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts.
“Your throat collapses at night while you sleep,” explained Resonea Chief Medical Officer and Co-founder Dr. Karen Underwood. “This keeps you from being able to breathe properly. Your oxygen levels decrease, and your carbon dioxide levels increase. Your body says, ‘I need to do something to make me breathe again,’ and you’re in a fight or flight mode and it tries to wake us up.”
Underwood said this becomes a problem because the body’s instinctive reaction to awaken fragments the sufferer’s sleep pattern, often preventing REM sleep. REM, or rapid-eye movement, sleep is a stage of sleep associated with dreaming and memory consolidation.
REM sleep usually happens about 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first period of REM typically lasts 10 minutes. Later REM stages become increasingly longer, and the final REM stage may last as long as an hour. The sleeper’s heart rate and breathing quicken during this stage of sleep, and the body’s major organs will also see increased activity.
“If you don’t treat sleep apnea, it can cause damage to your heart, pancreas and other organs. It makes us more prone to get heart failure, diabetes, strokes and depression,” Underwood noted. “Twenty percent of people with sleep apnea are diagnosed. It affects 10% to 30% of the general population.”
That number increases dramatically when looking at data for truckers, with as many as 50% of drivers suffering from the condition, she said. Men are more impacted than women.
“It’s a huge issue in truck drives,” she noted. “We think there are many variables.”
Those variables include lack of exercise, a poor diet, and already-bad sleep habits on the road. Obesity is another contributing variable.
“In truck drivers, if you have sleep apnea that is not treated, you are five times more likely to get in a crash,” Underwood stated.
She says people often compare driving with sleep apnea to driving under the influence of alcohol, because both impair a driver’s reaction time, motor response, and the ability to make decisions.
“Being able to have a way to conveniently identify truck drivers who have sleep apnea is in the best interest of everyone,” Underwood said. “How do we make it more convenient, comfortable, and accessible for more people to get diagnosed? Having a technology like DROWZLE that is without sensors and is convenient and comfortable is what we were striving for.”
Unlike traditional sleep monitors, DROWZLE requires no equipment other than the smartphone app. The driver simply downloads the app, answers some questions, and pushes a button to record their sleep breathing overnight using the phone’s microphone. The next morning, the sound files are analyzed in the cloud, and the driver receives an almost-instant report of their risk level for sleep apnea. A more in-depth analysis can be sent via email.
Another advantage of the DROWZLE app is that drivers can record their sleep and breathing patterns for several nights instead of just one, which is often the case for sleep analyses.
Once drivers see their risk levels via the app, they can reach out to a sleep medicine provider for further evaluation and treatment, if necessary. Treatment could involve using a piece of equipment that helps regulate breathing, such as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.
“If you have sleep apnea, you need to get treated,” Underwood said.
SIGNS OF SLEEP APNEA
Underwood says the most common symptoms include being tired during the day, headaches during the day that are caused by CO2 levels of the body while sleeping, gasping or snoring at night when sleeping, waking up trying to breathe, and an inability to feel rejuvenated after sleeping.
How can drivers improve their sleep patterns?
“The first thing I would say is that drivers need to find out first if they have a sleep problem,” Underwood said. “It’s almost impossible to improve your sleep if you have sleep apnea. If you do have sleep apnea, you need to be treated.”
In general, however, drivers should take breaks and walk around, don’t consume caffeine during the eight hours before normal sleep time, and create a cool, quiet, and dark environment in which to sleep.
“Think about wearing blue light blocking glasses,” she suggested. “Blue light delays our natural production of melatonin. Melatonin helps us get to sleep.”
Blue light is emitted from the various screens most people expose themselves to during on a regular basis, such as computer screens, tablets, smartphones and TVs.
PARTNERS IN DEVELOPMENT
The DROWZLE app partnership between Resonea and Challenger is designed to refine the messaging and feedback from drivers. This means educating drivers about and raising awareness of sleep apnea.
“When employers start to focus on the sleep health of employees, they begin to see a return on their investment (through) an increase in productivity and decrease in safety risk and liability,” Underwood noted.
She describes Challenger as an organization that is committed to the safety of its drivers.
“Challenger is offering DROWZLE as a voluntary screening,” she said. “They are reaching out to drivers who are concerned and want to use DROWZLE to screen themselves to find their risk. Then they can go get tested and seek treatment on their own.”
The DROWZLE app can be especially appealing to drivers because they can conduct the informal “sleep studies” in the privacy of their own homes (or sleeper berths), and the results are received quickly and confidentially.
In an effort to help combat the dangers of sleep apnea in the trucking industry, Resonea is making the DROWZLE app available to motor carriers at no cost, according to Resonea Senior Vice President of Transportation Kevin Kruke.
“The senior executive team can try to screen themselves, so they get a feel for it,” he explained. “The screening is completely private; no one knows the results other than you. We’re getting a pretty nice reception in a number of parts of the trucking industry because of the privacy of the screener.”
Joseph Price has been a journalist for almost two decades. He began in community media in 2005 and has since worked at media outlets in Virginia and Arkansas. He is also a commercial drone pilot and video editor. He hosts a weekly community radio show focused on goth, metal and industrial music that airs Wednesday evenings at 6 p.m. at www.kuhsradio.org.