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How sleep apnea contributes to auto accident risk

The effects of a common medical disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea may contribute to car accidents on California roadways. According to the Mayo Clinic, sleep apnea occurs when muscles supporting certain structures in the throat, such as the uvula, soft palate, tongue and tonsils, relax too much when the patient lies down to sleep. The relaxed muscles can cause these structures to block the airway in the throat, which temporarily prevents the body from breathing for as long as 20 seconds at a time.

In order to clear the obstruction and recompense breathing, the brain causes the body to wake briefly and reopen the airway. While some people with sleep apnea are aware of the sleep interruptions due to symptoms of gasping, choking, snorting or transient shortness of breath upon awakening, many people with sleep apnea do not recall waking up during the night and are not aware of the condition until someone else points it out to them.

Risk factors for developing sleep apnea include heredity, chronic nasal congestion and excess weight. Due to the frequent breathing interruptions during the night that prevents restorative rest, sleep apnea can cause daytime sleepiness and difficulty concentrating during the day, either of which may be risk factors for car accidents.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, at least 25 million people in the United States suffer from sleep apnea. A study conducted in 2015 demonstrated that drivers with sleep apnea were 2.5 times more likely to cause a motor vehicle accident than a control group from the general population. 

Fortunately, once diagnosed, obstructive sleep apnea is a treatable condition. Continuous positive airway pressure therapy is one of the most common and most effective methods used to treat sleep apnea in adults. The same study showed that use of CPAP therapy for a minimum of 4 hours per night reduced the risk of motor vehicle accidents approximately 70 percent among sleep apnea patients.

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