Park airplaneIn 2008, the impact of sleep apnea (specifically, obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA) on pilots attracted heightened public attention when a commercial flight missed its destination. The commuter jet, carrying 40 passengers between islands in Hawaii, flew 26 miles past its destination. Air-traffic controllers lost contact with the jet for 18 minutes. Fortunately, the plane landed safely. The pilot was reported to suffer from previously undiagnosed OSA. After this incident, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began pursuing plans to revise their sleep apnea policies, but their initial plans met with strong opposition from pilots and airlines. Now, a new set of regulations is getting off the ground that will not eliminate as many pilots as the previous revision.

2015 Guidelines Less Restrictive Than Previous Revision

The April 2014 revision proposed to use a pilot’s body-mass index (BMI) to determine whether or not they were at risk for having undiagnosed sleep apnea, especially OSA. Weight is a strong risk factor for OSA. Pilots with a BMI of 30 or more (categorized as obese) were required to go through screenings for sleep-disordered breathing. Under these guidelines, pilots with lower BMIs who also suffered from OSA may have slipped through undetected, while larger pilots without sleep apnea were grounded until test results came back. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association objected to requiring thousands of pilots to be grounded to undergo testing based solely on their BMI, when weight is just one risk factor for sleep apnea.

The new revision will not disqualify pilots with a higher body-mass index from receiving their medical certificate, and is set to take effect March 2, 2015. Instead, aviation medical examiners will use a pilot’s medical history and symptoms, coupled with physical and clinical findings, to determine risk. Examiners will also receive assistance from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Pilots who are found to be at significant risk will be given a regular medical certificate and undergo a sleep apnea evaluation. They will have 90 days to complete the evaluation with any physician. Those found to suffer from sleep apnea will then receive a special issuance medical certificate and will need to receive treatment if they are to continue piloting.

Drowsy Focus Is Like Intoxication

Pilots are not the only people who need to be aware of the detrimental and potentially deadly impact sleep deprivation can have on focus. When our mind and body is not rested, our ability to perform tasks goes down even when we do not realize we are tired. People suffering from OSA may see performance degradation equal to that of someone with a 0.08% blood alcohol content, which is the level of legal intoxication in most states. In this way, sleep disordered breathing has been known to cause vehicle accidents, train crashes, and work-related injury. Other risks include diabetes, obesity, depression, and heart disease.

Whether you are driving a vehicle, using heavy equipment, or flying a plane, sleep apnea could increase your risk of making serious mistakes. To learn more about your risk for sleep apnea and non-surgical treatment, please call (303) 691-0267 for an appointment at the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado.