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.

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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.

“You’re Gonna Hear Me SNORE!”

I hope your holiday season has been great so far!  And it’s not over yet!

I recognize I’m posting this video late–it aired originally during the Thanksgiving holiday–but it’s worth posting now anyway; we’re still in holiday mode, after all, aren’t we?, and lots of people eat turkey at Christmas time!  Jimmy Fallon, Rashida Jones, and Carrie Underwood gave a hilarious musical performance about Thanksgiving traditions on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

Please pay particular attention to what Rashida sings 1:29 into the clip.  She parodies Katy Perry’s song “Roar,” singing, “you’re gonna hear me SNORE!”

Drowsing and falling asleep in front of the television or fireplace after a big ol’ hyper-caloric meal are so common, they seem like natural components to our American holiday tradition.  The degree to which L-tryptophan in the turkey triggers an after-dinner snooze is questionable, actually.  However, there are so many reasons for sleep to take you over after a huge holiday meal:  sleep deprivation due to wrapping things up at work; family and friends coming into town; irregular work and sleep schedules; parties keeping you up late; alcohol, particularly when combined with certain medications; underlying medical problems; and undiagnosed sleep disorders.  Untreated sleep apnea, for example, may leave you both sleeping and snoring like a bear in your recliner, disturbing your house guests.

It’s always easier to say than to do, but keeping your sleep schedules as regular as possible and getting proper amounts of sleep during the holidays may well improve your levels of wakefulness and alertness during this time of year and may bring forth even more holiday cheer!  Have a great holiday week, everyone!

What About Naps?

Thank you, everybody, for your recent inquiries.  I’m happy to help!

The other day I was asked about daytime naps:  “is it better to take a nap when you are feeling really tired that day or try to go to bed earlier instead and skip the nap?”  In order to best answer the question, it’s important to know what is causing you to want or need the nap in the first place.

 

The science of sleep regulation is quite complex.  Sleep intensity is mediated by what is called the homeostatic mechanism of sleep, the specifics of which are beyond the scope of this blog entry.  Simply stated, the principles of sleep homeostasis dictate that sleep deprivation results in a compensating increase in intensity and duration of sleep, and excessive sleep (such as related to a daytime nap) reduces the inclination for sleep.  Taking a nap during the day implies daytime sleepiness, so let’s explore why one may be sleepy during the day.

One of the most common causes of daytime sleepiness is simple sleep deprivation.  If you’re getting 5 hours of sleep per night, for example, when your body needs 8, then likely you will not need to take a nap during the day any longer if you then gradually increase your sleep time to 8 hours per night, because by satisfying your body’s natural sleep needs consistently you should eventually feel substantially more awake and alert throughout the day.

Another common cause of daytime sleepiness is insomnia.  If you get less sleep at night because you’re awake a lot in bed, an obvious consequence would be feeling fatigued and drowsy during the day.  The problem is that taking a nap during the day can cause or worsen insomnia, particularly if the nap is prolonged and/or taken in the mid-afternoon to early evening; you tend to get a “second wind” and feel more awake and alert later than what you desire, resulting in further sleeplessness at night.

Finally, you could be sleepy during the day due to a problem with the quality (as opposed to the quantity) of your sleep.  Numerous sleep disorders can cause substantial drowsiness during the day even if you get your 8 hours per night:  obstructive sleep apnea, upper airway resistance syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, and narcolepsy to name a few.  A good general rule to follow:  if you regularly get 7-8 hours of sleep per night and you’re consistently struggling to stay awake during the day when 7-8 hours per night used to satisfy your sleep need in the past, and if the sleepiness can’t be explained by some other factor (like medications or alcohol), you may want to see a specialist like me.

OK, synthesizing this down, then, here are my personal primary clinical concerns about napping:

1.  If you nap because you’re sleep deprived, there is often residual sleepiness between the time you awaken in the morning and the time your nap starts.

2.  If you nap due to insomnia, a vicious cycle can develop:  the nap can cause or worsen the insomnia, which then reduces your nocturnal total sleep time, which then makes you feel more sleepy during the day, which then makes you want to nap more.  In extreme cases people’s bedtime schedules can be completely turned around due to this problem, such that they become essentially nocturnal, sleeping throughout much of the day and remaining awake all night.

3.  Taking a nap to sustain you for the rest of day may “mask” concerns for an occult sleep disorder.

Bottom line here:  if the nap doesn’t cause difficulties falling or staying asleep at night, and if you don’t have substantial daytime fatigue or sleepiness prior to the nap, and if you’re confident you know the reason why you need the nap in the first place (such as staying up too late the night before), then I think there’s probably not much of a problem with taking that nap.  However, if you find yourself unable to stay awake during much of the day, if you are substantially sleepy during the day despite getting proper amounts of sleep, or if you are having mounting insomnia in this setting, there should be further concern about what is happening.

I’ll add several additional points before Sleep Help Desk closes for today.  First, naps can be intentional (i.e., laying down with the intention of taking a nap) or unintentional (such as falling asleep by accident in front of the television).  Second, if you doze off on the couch at 10 p.m. before you go to bed, that’s still a nap!  That late-night nap can cause difficulties falling back to sleep once you do go to bed, so try to avoid dozing off in the evening until you’re in bed intending to sleep.  Finally, to answer the original question posed to me above, I suggest not going to bed too early if you choose to not take the nap.  If you go to bed way earlier than usual, you can still have insomnia even if you’re sleep deprived, because your body clock “wants” regularity nonetheless.  The idea is to gradually increase your total sleep time such that you reliably get proper amounts of sleep every night.

Trivia question:  who is the famous person napping in the photograph above?  Write me with your answer!

Cheers, everyone!  Keep your questions coming!