NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People with sleep apnea may be at increased risk of needing an extended sick leave from work or going on permanent work disability, a new study suggests.
Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, occurs when the soft tissues at the back of the throat temporarily collapse during sleep, causing repeated breathing interruptions. Major symptoms include loud snoring and daytime sleepiness -- the latter of which, studies show, may cause irritability, cloud thinking and concentration, or increase the risk of traffic accidents.
The extent to which OSA interferes with a person's ability to work has not been clear. But the new study, published in the European Respiratory Journal, suggests that the disorder can exact a large toll at work.
Norwegian researchers found that of more than 7,000 workers followed for four years, those with symptoms of OSA were nearly two thirds more likely to take a sick leave of more than eight weeks. They were also about twice as likely to go on permanent work disability.
The study participants ranged in age from 40 to 45 at the outset and had a variety of occupations, from professional fields to retail sales to farming. At the beginning of the study, all completed a standard questionnaire on OSA symptoms.
The researchers, led by Dr. Borge Sivertsen of the University of Bergen, found that workers with OSA symptoms were more likely to need long-term sick leave or go on work disability, even with other factors - such as lifestyle habits and other medical conditions -- taken into account.
Among OSA symptoms, daytime sleepiness was most strongly linked to sick leave and work disability, the researchers found.
Together, the results suggest that OSA itself raises the risk of long- term sick leave, according to Sivertsen's team. They also strengthen the evidence that OSA can have "serious consequences, both individual and social," the researchers note.
Earlier diagnosis and better treatment of the disorder could help reduce the social and economic costs seen in this study, Sivertsen said in a written statement.
"Where a patient complains of poor sleep," he said, "doctors should thus look for other symptoms of sleep (apnea), such as snoring, pauses in breathing and daytime sleepiness." From there, he added, patients can be referred for specialized tests in a sleep lab, if necessary.
SOURCE: European Respiratory Journal, December 2008.