Texting Drivers? Ask Tracy Morgan About Drowsy Drivers

I do a fair bit of driving.  I live in Seattle, home to long, crazy commutes.  You see a lot of stuff on Puget Sound highways:  multi-lane weavers, left-lane cruising taxi drivers, packs of wheelie-popping crotch-rocketers, hyper-caffeinated road-ragers.

Something that I see more and more of these days:  a Prius ahead of me, starting to hug those lane-dividing lines, slowly moving further and further to one side, followed by a quick correction back to the center of the lane, and then followed by another slow drift to the lane’s outer boundaries.  Then it rolls over some of those turtles on the side of the highway before it corrects yet again. I speed up to get away from this car and its impaired driver.  I look over as I pass, and sure enough:  the young driver is staring at his or her lap, poking furiously at a smart phone while putting everyone on the road at risk.

 

Everyone has seen these drivers on the road in recent years.  But another, more insidious problem has long lurked on our roads, something much less obvious than but just as dangerous as texting drivers:  drowsy drivers.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, roughly 100,000 motor vehicle accidents are reported to occur due to driver sleepiness/fatigue in the United States every year.  Those are just the reported accidents; there are likely thousands more that occur every year that are not reported.  A 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll revealed that 60% of American drivers reported driving while drowsy at least once in the previous year, and 37% fell asleep behind the wheel at least once in the previous year.

These basic statistics should make you concerned, not just because there are so many drowsy drivers out there, but because of how casually so many people routinely drive while sleepy.  They flirt with disaster every day by doing so.

Around 12:55 a.m. one late night in June 2014, a Wal-Mart truck crashed into a van carrying, among other people, the actor and comedian Tracy Morgan, killing one van occupant and critically injuring Morgan.  Earlier this week the National Transportation Safety Board announced its conclusion that driver fatigue likely played a role in the accident:  the truck driver reportedly had driven 800 miles throughout the night prior to the accident, and had been awake for more than 28 hours straight.  The driver, Kevin Roper, now has been charged with vehicular homicide.

What to do with truck driver fatigue is a difficult, complex, and emotionally and politically charged issue.  Work hours, industry culture, the need to “get there on time,” and financial issues all contribute to the debate regarding how to improve safety on our highways.  From a clinical perspective, however, I can tell you that a great many people–truck drivers or not–simply don’t sleep as long as their bodies require.  The substantial majority of adults require around 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and let’s be honest with ourselves, many of us don’t get that much on an average night.  One of the most common causes of daytime sleepiness is chronic sleep deprivation, which is associated all sorts of long-term and short-term consequences, from poor work performance to medical problems to fall-asleep car crashes.

For those who struggle to stay awake during the day and find themselves nodding off while they are driving despite getting proper amounts of sleep per night, consider informing your doctor and consider a sleep medicine evaluation.  There are many potential causes of excessive daytime sleepiness, including many sleep disorders.

Final word, which at this point is painfully obvious:  regardless of the cause, never drive if you’re drowsy!  Spare yourself the tragedy of injury and death, as well as the guilt stemming from having caused a fall-asleep car crash.

Have a safe weekend, everyone.

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Participate in Sleep Apnea Research!

I hope you are enjoying this hot and crazy summer!

As you know, we in clinical sleep medicine are here for you.  Without patients in need of help for their sleeping problems, there would be no physician sleep specialists, no sleep centers, no sleep medicine.

Sleep medicine is an independent medial subspecialty, just like cardiology, pulmonology, and neurology.  Though sleep medicine remains focused on the clinical evaluation and management of sleep disorders, it also must continue to move forward in innovation and search for answers to unknowns in our field.  These essential aspects of our work can only be accomplished through research.

An organization called SAPCON (Sleep Apnea Patient Centered Outcomes Network) is dedicated to promoting sleep apnea research around the country.  Organized in conjunction with the American Sleep Apnea Association, it is one of the largest networks to advance sleep apnea research.  My friend and mentor, Dr. Vishesh Kapur (Professor of Medicine, University of Washington; Steering Committee Member, SAPCON), asked me recently to spread the word about SAPCON, which has created a website designed to develop a sleep apnea patient community that will learn about and contribute to sleep apnea research.  Sleep apnea apnea patients may now easily connect with health care providers and researchers to share ideas and needs.  As Dr. Kapur puts it, through the website “patients will be able to learn what is new in sleep apnea research, suggest new areas of focus for sleep apnea research, and participate in research if they choose to.”  The website also contains valuable online tools to help you manage your sleep apnea.

The website:  www.myapnea.org

I encourage sleep apnea patients and their loved ones to visit the site and see all that it has to offer.

Stay cool and sleep well this summer, everyone!

 

Alaska Airlines Cargo Worker Falls Asleep in Plane Cargo Compartment

Here’s a recent story from right here in my home base of Seattle, Washington:

Six days ago, as Alaska Airlines flight #448 took off from SeaTac International Airport, passengers heard someone pounding from below the cabin.  A cargo worker was trapped in the cargo compartment of the now airborne Boeing 737.  This as-of-yet unidentified man, an employee of contractor Menzies Aviation, called 911 upon realizing he was trapped in the belly of the plane.  Upon learning of the presence of someone in the compartment, the pilot turned around for a hasty but safe emergency landing back at SeaTac.  No one was injured.

 

Turns out that this man had fallen asleep in the cargo compartment and he later awakened to find himself–and the plane–airborne and on its way to Los Angeles.  The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident, and by report the man is on administrative leave; furthermore, according to an Alaska Airlines spokesperson he has been “permanently banned from ever working again on an Alaska Airlines operation.”

It’s not clear from the news reports why the contractor was asleep in the cargo compartment; by report he passed a drug test subsequent to the event.  However, this incident took place around 2:30 in the afternoon on a Monday.  From a physician sleep specialist’s perspective, here are some important potential reasons for someone to end up snoozing in the wrong place at the wrong time:

Irregular sleep schedules, which could be related to a wide variety of causes, from insomnia to some late weekend nights to flip-flopping work shifts (it’s not yet clear if this man’s particular work scheduling involved occasional or recent night-time work).

Chronic sleep deprivation.  Most adults require 7.5-8 hours of sleep per night regularly to feel fully rested during the day, and the most common cause of sleepiness in the U.S. is sleep deprivation.

Undiagnosed and/or untreated sleep disorders.  There are about 100 sleep disorders, ranging from breathing disorders (such as obstructive sleep apnea) to movement disorders (such as periodic limb movement disorder).  Commonly associated with excessive daytime sleepiness, these intrinsic sleep disorders often can persist for many years before coming to the attention of a healthcare provider.

I should note here that it’s not necessarily abnormal to feel a little sleepy or “let down” in the mid-afternoon.  Our natural tendency to become slightly drowsy or fatigued during that time of day is called the “circadian dip” or “circadian low;” it also provides the reasoning for the “siestas” commonly found in some cultures.  However, warningless sleep attacks and irresistible urges to sleep during that time suggest that more than just the circadian low may be at work.

 

Though I understand that Alaska Airlines does not permit people to “sleep on the job,” my real concern here is why this person experienced a sudden sleep attack or felt compelled to take a nap in the compartment in the first place.  I hope that this gentleman has been or will soon be properly evaluated in this regard.

Sleeping Yankees Fan Brings Up Important Point About Sleepiness

Recently 26 year-old Andrew Rector filed a lawsuit against ESPN, Major League Baseball Advanced Media, and the New York Yankees, claiming defamation stemming from broadcasted video of him fast asleep in the stands during an April Yankees vs. Red Sox baseball game.

 

Here is the video in question:

According to the filed materials, Mr. Rector was subjected to an “unending verbal crusade against the napping plaintiff” and an “avalanche of disparaging words against” him subsequent to the game.

In reporting this story, this morning’s television news programs often asked a question not terribly different from that of the commentators:  “how can anyone sleep through something as exciting as a close Yankees / Red Sox game?”

I’m not writing today to provide legal commentary.  However, this incident does bring up an important issue regarding sleep and our collective perception of sleepiness.

There has long been a widely held belief that you naturally fall asleep simply because you’re bored or inactive.  The corollary concept is that if you fall asleep when you’re not supposed to or when other people usually don’t, such as while at work or at an exciting event, you must be lazy, unmotivated, or dumb.  Over the years I’ve seen many patients whose clinic evaluations were initiated by getting fired, suspended or reprimanded for having fallen asleep on the job or in meetings.

I submit that such notions are ill-conceived and unfair.  If you regularly have proper amounts of sleep and if you are free of medications, substances, or medical conditions causing sleepiness, then you really shouldn’t be struggling to stay awake all day long just because you’re physically or mentally inactive.  It’s more accurate to say that a person who is prone to excessive drowsiness (regardless of the reason) tends to fall asleep by accident if sedentary.  The question then shifts to:  why is that person prone to being drowsy in the first place?

I mean, who knows why Rector was snoozing during the ball game?  Maybe he usually gets up at 3 a.m. to get to work, so the game was past his usual bedtime.  Perhaps he holds down two jobs.  Maybe he spent the previous night caring for a sick child.  Perhaps he has an undiagnosed sleep disorder.  Is it really right to make a judgment of a person’s character or work ethic based on a tendency to fall asleep when others are awake?

How “normal” is it to sleep through something exciting or otherwise stimulating?  In my younger years (prior to practicing sleep medicine), and in the setting of chronic sleep deprivation, I routinely slept through fire alarms, tornadoes, tornado alarms, neighborhood car crashes, earthquakes, and parties next door.  I slept through important lectures, grand rounds, and meetings due to not getting enough sleep.  Your ability to stay awake and your ability to arouse from sleep in response to a stimulus depend on a number of factors, including your age, how much sleep you usually get, how regular your sleep schedules are, how much sleep you happened to get the previous night, and what stage of sleep you happen to be in when the stimulus occurs.

I’m not saying it’s OK to sleep through important events, of course.  Here are my main points today.  If you are finding yourself falling asleep in inappropriate times, places, and circumstances, and particularly if your professional and personal lives suffer as a result:

1.  Work to identify the reason(s) for the sleepiness.  Often an underlying cause may be obvious and right under your nose, like getting 5 hours of sleep each night.  We are creatures of habit, though, so lifestyle choices that lead to chronic sleep deprivation may not feel like problems if you’ve engaged in them for a long time.

2.  If there is a specific lifestyle choice that is causing your sleepiness, make a change, even if the change is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

3.  Strive to get proper amounts of sleep (which for most adults is 7.5 – 8 hours per night) on a regular basis to the extent possible.

4.  Should you remain prone to falling asleep despite proper amounts of sleep and after excluding other potential causes, discuss your sleepiness with your doctor; your drowsiness may suggest the presence of an undiagnosed sleep disorder.  You may want to consider an evaluation at an accredited sleep center.

Stay healthy and awake this summer, everyone!

Final thing:  shout-out to my friend Doug, man, you’re an inspiration.

Former NFL Star Aaron Taylor Discusses the Importance of Sleep Apnea Diagnosis and Treatment

I must admit that, two months following Super Bowl XLVIII, I’m still flying high from our Seattle Seahawks’ resounding victory.  The win has also served to take some of the sting out of my Kansas Jayhawks’ second-round loss in the NCAA national basketball tournament several weeks ago.

Well, back to sleep problems.  If you’re reading this you probably have heard of a common but under-recognized, under-diagnosed sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea.  This is a breathing problem during sleep, in which one’s upper airway episodically collapses or closes down while asleep.  A study recently published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine has demonstrated that sleep apnea is independently associated with an increased risk of cancer, stroke and death, and that apnea sufferers are 4 times more likely to die if the sleep apnea is left untreated longterm as compared to people who do not have the problem. (1)

My wonderful and patient readers have had to put up with my many posts regarding the importance of diagnosing and treating sleep apnea.  Now it’s time to hear from another authority on the subject:  Aaron Taylor, former NFL offensive guard (Packers and Chargers) and now a sports analyst for CBS College Sports.  Recently Taylor was interviewed and featured on CNN’s The Human Factor.  Here he is, talking about his own journey through the discovery and management of his sleep apnea.

http://www.aasmnet.org/articles.aspx?id=4703&utm_source=WeeklyUpdate&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=wu-4-18-14

All too frequently I hear from my patients about their longstanding symptoms of daytime fatigue and sleepiness, loud snoring, and gasping sensations out of sleep, and how something kept them from getting properly evaluated in a timely fashion:  lack of motivation or time, acclimatization to their symptoms, some misconception about the treatments.  However, for many sleep apnea sufferers, treatment can be a total life-changer, resulting in profound improvements in daytime energy levels and wakefulness, a resolution of snoring and breathing pauses during sleep, and, hopefully, reduced risks of developing medical problems in the future.  I appreciate Aaron Taylor’s advocacy in bringing sleep apnea awareness to the forefront.

 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

(1) http://www.aasmnet.org/jcsm/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=29425&utm_source=WeeklyUpdate&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=wu-4-18-14

April Fool’s Day Wake-Up Pranks, 2014

Well, Happy April Fools’ Day once again, everyone!

Last year I posted some funny sleep-related April Fools’ pranks:

https://sleephelpdesk.com/2013/04/01/april-fools-day-wake-up-pranks/

To expand on this tradition I’m posting some more humor today.  I present here some of my more favorite sleep-related practical jokes.  This year I’ve had a hard time finding video sufficiently clean to include in this post.  I’ve done my best to screen for language and out-and-out meanness.  As always, do not try any of these pranks at home.

 

Our first gag comes from Japan, land of crazy, well-orchestrated, and televised practical jokes.  The pranks the Japanese show on television would never float here in the U.S., where people sue other people just for looking at them wrong.  This is way over the top, quite literally.  I would hate to be the guy pranked here.  Check it out.

Here is a guy pretending to be so sleepy that he sleeps standing up, leaning in on other people, and generally freaking people out, especially the last guy.  For the record, falling asleep in public places is quite common, though usually not as dramatically as depicted here; people think of narcolepsy when they hear of people falling asleep in public like this, but actually the most common cause of sleepiness is sleep deprivation, such as from pulling an all-nighter.

Anyone who has seen the Japanese or American versions of The Ring will find this instantly familiar and hilarious.  The women who was pranked seemed to take the joke in her stride.

The classic wake-up prank involves an air horn.  There are hundreds of examples of this form of rude awakening on the web.  Here’s a quick one featuring the Burger King!

I also love rude awakenings in the car, particularly the ones that involve screaming and scaring the pants off of the unsuspecting, slumbering passenger.  You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.  Here’s a nice example:

And here, at last, is my very favorite sleep-related prank video of the year.  It’s short and silent, but hilarious:  for a brief period of time, this man becomes a guitar hero to all who slumber.  Enjoy!

OK, OK, I have to give you one more.  This is a repeat from last year, but it’s so great I have to post it again.  Have a great day!

Chicago O’Hare Train Accident Thought Related to Operator Sleepiness

You probably have heard by now about the recent commuter train derailment at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.  In the early morning of Monday, March 24, a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) blue line train jumped its rails and crashed into an escalator, injuring more than 30 people.

 

It is so weird to see photos of such destruction in a place that I am so familiar with.

Anyhow, this morning it was announced that the train operator informed investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that she had fallen asleep at the controls before the accident.

Here is the surveillance video that captured the incident:

According to lead investigator Ted Turpin, the train operator indicated that she had “dozed off prior to entering the [O’Hare] station and did not awake again until the train hit close to the end of the bumper.”  She also told investigators that in an earlier incident, in February, she had fallen asleep at the controls and subsequently overshot a train stop.

This accident at O’Hare occurred at 2:50 a.m. CST.

It kind of goes without saying that drowsy driving is dangerous, but you may be surprised as to how big of a deal this problem actually is.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), roughly 100,000 police-reported motor vehicle accidents occur in the United States each year; of these, roughly 40,000 injuries occur and 1,550 people die.  These statistics don’t include the accidents that are never reported.  Unfortunately, work and driving accidents in the early morning are far too common, though usually not quite as dramatic as this particular event.  Many of these NHTSA-reported vehicular accidents occur in the early morning, between 2 and 7 a.m.

Further complicating matters is the fact that this tendency toward drowsy driving can be related to many potential underlying causes:  work schedules (particularly schedules that rotate in terms of the timing), home circumstances and social obligations, chronic sleep deprivation, a need to work two jobs, undiagnosed sleep disorders, and irregular sleep schedules.  Many of us can relate to most, if not all, of these causes, which again speaks to how common and problematic drowsy driving can be.

I can’t emphasize the following take-home points enough:

1.  NEVER DRIVE OR OPERATE MACHINERY (including any kind of vehicle) IF YOU ARE DROWSY!!!  It simply isn’t worth it to retain your job or get somewhere on time by risking your life or the life of others around you.  Pull over, stop your work, speak with your supervisor, whatever it takes.

2.  ALWAYS STRIVE TO GET PROPER AMOUNTS OF SLEEP (which for most adults is between 7.5 and 8 hours per night) AND KEEP YOUR SLEEP SCHEDULES REGULAR.  In other words, get as much sleep as your body needs, and get this much sleep regularly, every day at around the same time of day, even if you work night shifts.

3.  If you don’t know WHY you are drowsy when you’re supposed to be awake, SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION.  If you are sleepy despite proper amounts of sleep and regular sleep timing, you may have an intrinsic sleep disorder.  Fixing abnormal sleepiness is one of the functions of a physician sleep specialist.

In closing, I want to give a shout-out to our nation’s first responders.  May we never take them for granted.  We’ve had a lot of disasters recently, it seems, including one geographically very close to me (the tragic, huge March 22 mudslide in Oso, Washington).  Here is a link for those who wish to help in the Oso landslide relief efforts:

http://www.king5.com/news/breaker1/Northwest-Response-Oso-Mudslide-Relief-252007821.html

Stay SAFE, everyone.