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Driver Health: So what is Obstructive Sleep Apnoea anyway?

If you’ve recently attended one of your Driver CPC Periodic Training modules, the chances are that you’ve heard of Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, or ‘OSA’ as it’s commonly referred to.

Here’s what the NHS has to say about OSA –

OSA is a condition that causes interrupted breathing during sleep.

Sleep is driven by natural brain activity. You need to have a certain amount of deep sleep for your body and mind to be fully refreshed. Having only limited episodes of deep sleep will leave you feeling very tired the next day.

In order to function properly, most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep. Around 15-25% of that time should be spent in the deepest phase of sleep, known as slow wave sleep.

During the night, people with OSA may experience repeated episodes of apnoea and hypopnoea.

During an episode, lack of oxygen causes the person to come out of deep sleep and into a lighter state of sleep, or a brief period of wakefulness, in order to restore normal breathing. However, after falling back into deep sleep, further episodes of apnoea and hypopnoea can occur. Such events may occur more than once a minute throughout the night.

Most people with OSA snore loudly. Their breathing may be noisy and laboured, and it is often interrupted by gasping and snorting with each episode of apnoea.

The repeated interruptions to sleep caused by OSA can make the person feel very tired during the day. A person with OSA will usually have no memory of breathlessness, so they are often unaware that they are not getting a proper night’s sleep.

OSA is a relatively common condition that affects more men than women. In the UK, it is estimated that around 4 in 100 middle-aged men have OSA.

The onset of OSA is most common in people aged 35 to 54 years old, although it can affect people of all ages, including children. The condition often goes undiagnosed. It is estimated that up to 5% of adults has undiagnosed OSA.

OSA is a treatable condition and there are a variety of treatment options to reduce the symptoms.

Lifestyle changes, such as losing excess weight, can often help mild cases of sleep apnoea to resolve. In more severe cases, the use of breathing apparatus while sleeping may be necessary.

Obviously, with OSA affecting more men than women, and the high number of male employees working as HGV Drivers, it’s not surprising that we see a high occurrence of OSA in the HGV driving population.

Undiagnosed OSA in HGV Drivers can be very risky – a tired driver behind the wheel of an HGV is a dangerous combination. Sufferers often report being unable to get a good night’s rest, and frequently wake up tired. In a profession where unusual shift patterns and nights out can feature frequently in an employee’s work rota, it’s easy to see how undiagnosed OSA could blight the career of any driver.

Research has shown that someone who has been deprived of sleep due to OSA has the same impaired judgement and reaction time as someone who is over the drink-drive limit. As someone with OSA can suffer a lack of refreshing sleep, they run an increased risk of being involved in a life-threatening accident, such as a car crash. Their risk of having a work-related accident also increases.

Fortunately, help is at hand. The Driver CPC Periodic Training legislation means that drivers are now routinely retrained on many aspects of driving, road-craft and Health and Safety. One of the subjects covered is Sleep Apnoea, and how to spot it.

Symptoms of OSA include:

  • -feeling very sleepy during the day
  • -waking up with a sore or dry throat
  • -poor memory and concentration
  • -headaches (particularly in the morning)
  • -irritability and a short temper
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • -lack of interest in sex
  • -in men, impotence (inability to get or maintain an erection)


If you have OSA, it could affect your ability to drive. It is your legal obligation to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) about a medical condition that could have an impact on your driving ability. The Directgov website has advice about how to tell the DVLA about a medical condition.

(Read more about OSA on the NHS website at http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Sleep-apnoea/Pages/Introduction.aspx)




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