Many U.S. veterans suffer from sleep apnea—a condition that happens when a person stops breathing during sleep and may be associated with long-term exposure to chemicals and dust during military service. If the condition goes untreated, it can lead to serious health issues, and a veteran may be eligible for disability benefits if the symptoms are severe enough.
There Are Two Types of Sleep Apnea
There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. It’s important for veterans to learn about the differences between the two so they can better understand how the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determines if they’re eligible for benefits. Here are the two types of sleep apnea:
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Known as OSA, this type of sleep apnea occurs when oxygen is blocked and can only enter the lungs intermittently while a person sleeps. Although it’s unclear why this happens, muscles in the body relax when you sleep. For most people, the airway to the lungs stays open even when they sleep and their muscles are relaxed. But for those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, the airway closes up or nearly collapses.
When this happens, the brain wakes up the muscles in the airway to allow regular airflow. Then, the brain falls back to sleep so quickly, most people have no memory of the event or awareness that they’ve had breathing problems while they were asleep.
- Your bodyweight is a factor. For reasons that aren’t clear, gaining weight can help cause the airways to collapse. Just as fat builds up in other body parts, it can build up in the tissues that surround the airway and change its form and shape. This may cause the airway to collapse. People with larger necks are at a greater risk for sleep apnea.
- There are other contributing factors as well. Along with weight, other factors can contribute to obstructive sleep apnea, including a small jaw, sleeping on your back, alcohol and medication consumption, large tonsils or adenoids, and smoking.
Central Sleep Apnea
This type of sleep apnea occurs when the brain doesn’t trigger the muscles in the chest to start breathing. These breathing muscles only work if the brain tells them to. The most common breathing pattern of central sleep apnea has its own name: Cheyne-Stokes breathing. This type of breathing alternates between periods without breathing and periods of hyper breathing. It is often a sign that central sleep apnea has become more advanced if Cheyne-Stokes breathing happens when the person is waking up.
Filing VA Disability Benefits for Sleep Apnea
There are some things you need to do when filing a VA Disability claim for sleep apnea. They include:
- Documenting your symptoms and treatments. This is important, and helps make sure your condition is rated properly. If you’re using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or other breathing assistive machine, make sure this is noted. Under regulations promulgated by the VA in April 2016, you must show that the device is medically necessary. If you experience extreme sleepiness during the day or chronic fatigue, this should also be documented.
- Have a sleep study. A sleep study is often needed in order for there to be an accurate and a definitive diagnosis about your condition.
- Document how your symptoms interfere with your ability to work. This is a key component to show how your sleep apnea is affecting your ability to perform your job.
- Show your condition is related to your military service. It’s important to show that your sleep apnea is connected to your time in the service. You may establish this by showing that it arose during your service or that it is secondarily connected to a condition that is service connected. It’s also important to file your claim immediately to preserve the earliest effective date.