On a routine 40-minute flight from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii in 2008 two pilots fell asleep, overshooting their destination by 30 miles over open ocean. Thankfully, the pilots woke up, rerouted the plane, and landed safely. This did not go unnoticed. Not by the 43 people on board, their friends and family waiting on the ground, or by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

After investigating the strange overflight, the NTSB concluded that the pilots were sleep deprived partly because of their shift schedules but also because of the captain’s undiagnosed sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a medical condition that causes people to repeatedly stop breathing while they are asleep. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, this can happen hundreds of times per night, lasting up to a minute at a time. The sleeper usually has no conscious awareness that this is happening. It is extremely disruptive to sleep and can lead to severe daytime drowsiness. Learn more about this in the video below:

Why am I so sleepy all of the time? from American Sleep Apnea Association on Vimeo.

Drowsiness like this can be very dangerous (when it happens to a pilot flying a plane, for example) and is a big contributor to motor vehicle crashes. According to the National Safety Council, “About 6% of all crashes and 21% of fatal crashes involved a fatigued driver.”

Twenty two million Americans suffer from a lack of restorative sleep, and considering that eighteen million American adults have sleep apnea, this disease is likely a big cause of that.

The most common type of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea. It is caused by collapsing of the soft tissue at the back of the throat that leads to a blocked airway. This form of the disease is most common in men and individuals who are overweight, but it can occur in people of both sexes, all ages, and all body types.

Symptoms include the following:

  • Loud snoring or gasping for air during sleep (often reported by a spouse)
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Frequent waking during the night to urinate
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor memory

Sleep apnea can also lead to serious health problems like stroke, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression, so it is important to get diagnosed early.

The condition is typically diagnosed following a sleep study, where the patient is observed and monitored overnight. Treatment can be very effective and often includes the use of a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP) worn over the nose and mouth while sleeping. This device provides a steady flow of air to help keep the airway open.

If you think you could be suffering from sleep apnea, it is important to see your primary care doctor right away. You don’t want to wait until you have a car accident (or if you are a pilot, until you put your passengers at risk) to take care of this condition. Make an appointment today.