There is no question that American workers are more tired than ever, but over 22 million actually suffer from a debilitating and life- threatening disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) or simply sleep apnea. People with this disorder stop breathing continually throughout the night. Essentially, the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, causing fragmented sleep, low blood oxygen levels and chronic exhaustion. Untreated, sleep apnea can lead to hypertension, heart disease, mood, and memory problems.
Sleep apnea is also a huge problem in the workplace with workers suffering from the disorder twice as likely to suffer an occupational injury and three times as likely to suffer from an injury related to lack of vigilance – tripping, falling, getting burned etc. It is also a costly problem for employers. Each employee with the disorder can cost an employer more than $3,000 in additional health care costs each year. (Learn more in 7 Fascinating Facts About Sleep Apnea and Workplace Safety).
Adding to all of this is the fact that researchers estimate that the vast majority of the 22 million sleep apnea sufferers remain undiagnosed.
Diagnosis traditionally meant seeking a medical referral and spending several nights at a sleep clinic attached to monitors that measured oxygen levels, heart rate and breathing. It’s a costly and time-consuming procedure. And for those who are lucky enough to be diagnosed, the treatment can sometimes be worse than the problem. (Learn more in 5 Treatments for Employees Suffering from Sleep Apnea). The primary treatment for sleep apnea a is portable breathing machine known as a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). With the CPAP, air is forced through the nose via a face mask that some users find bulky, uncomfortable, or noisy. Even though the machines and masks have evolved, some patients are still unable to use them. Another treatment commonly used involves custom fitted oral appliances that are often a challenge to fit properly.
This all may be about to change as new technologies are making it easier to both diagnose and treat sleep apnea in your workers.
An At-Home Device That Helps Craft a Custom Product
A sleep physician in Calgary, Canada, has invented a take home device that will allow patients to determine if they need treatment and if an oral appliance will work for them. The MATRx plus Testing system involves an oral device with tiny motors that move the mandible in incrementally while monitoring your blood oxygen and breathing. Information from the device is sent electronically to the service provider, usually a dentist, who then has everything needed to create a perfectly fitted custom oral device that will keep the airway open and reduce sleep apnea incidents.
Wearable Devices Like FitBit and Apple Watch
Devices like FitBit and Apple Watch are showing great promise as an easy and less disruptive way to diagnose and monitor sleep apnea. In a recent study, the Apple Watch, using a deep learning algorithm called DeepHeart was shown to detect sleep apnea with 90% accuracy. DeepHeart’s algorithms were able to quickly analyze over a week’s worth of already available data from these devices. It can detect subtle patterns that are not necessarily visible to most of us. Since sleep apnea is rarely part of a general checkup with a family physician, this is an especially intriguing development as it allows for continuous screening of the user. And the additional benefit is that it is available on multiple platforms. As the same technology is built into most wearables that incorporate a heart-rate sensor, other similar devices will be able to offer the same potential for sleep apnea sufferers.
A Pacemaker Style Device That Delivers an Electric Current
Another option for sleep apnea treatment is a pacemaker style device known as Inspire, which is implanted into the chest with wires running under the skin to the base of the tongue and chest. The device is remote controlled and delivers a mild electric current at night to stimulate the nerves in the tongue to open up the airway. Clinical trials of Inspire have found a 78% reduction in sleep apnea events for patients. The procedure is expensive though. The device alone will cost you $20,000 and this does not include the cost of surgery. A sore tongue is one possible side effect. There are also very specific restrictions regarding eligibility for Inspire. Candidates must be over age 22, not significantly overweight, be unable to use the CPAP and have a diagnosis of moderate to severe sleep apnea. Insurers are considering the device on a case by case basis.
Aeroflow, an At-Home Sleep Test
Aeroflow, a supplier of CPAP machines, has developed an at home sleep test that they are specifically targeting to the trucking industry. The tests, which employ a finger sensor, chest recorder and a nose tube, cost about $250, and are far cheaper than the $1,350 cost of an in-lab test. Aeroflow also enables you to take their test more quickly. You won’t have to wait for lab and doctor appointments and the test is mailed via fast shipping. The results are accepted by medical examiners.
The Rested App, a Diagnostic App
The Rested App plans to take the diagnostic process online and recently raised $7.4 million to take the app worldwide. The free app measures and analyzes your sleep and includes a quiz that will help you determine your risk for sleep apnea. The paid service, which runs about $1,000, includes an in-app consultation with a doctor or sleep coach and with a respiratory therapist to get fitted with a sleep mask in their own home. The service also includes an at home test kit which is mailed to the user.