For service members, the stresses of training, combat, and reintegration into civilian life can disrupt sleep patterns. Insomnia and nightmares may be the most common service-related sleep disruption, but sleep apnea also affects millions of veterans. Yes, it is a disability that can entitle a veteran to compensation.
Sleep apnea is a condition where breathing stops and starts while the individual is asleep. It may lead to snoring or gasping for air during sleep, drowsiness, dry mouth, and/or headaches during waking hours.
Service-related sleep apnea could be connected to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Though research is still being conducted on the connection between the two, the stress from sleep loss related to sleep apnea worsens PTSD. Additionally, if veterans with PTSD self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, sleep apnea can develop or worsen as these substances interfere with proper breathing.
A VA disability rating for sleep disorders typically starts with a sleep study and diagnosis to determine the severity of symptoms. Other evidence includes statements from individuals who have slept near the veteran or witnessed daytime symptoms, and service medical records showing visits to a clinic for sleep issues.
A Closer Look at Sleep Apnea: 3 Types
Like many long-term health conditions, the effects of sleep apnea range from inconvenient to life-threatening. Snoring and morning fatigue are the most common symptoms of the three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central, and treatment-emergent central.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
OSA is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when something physically obstructs breathing, like when muscles in the back of the throat relax, blocking airflow into the lungs. It can also occur when the tongue falls back into the throat and blocks airflow. Several factors contribute to the likelihood of developing OSA:
- Increased age
- Changes in hormone levels
- Family history and genetics
- Heart or kidney failure
- Large tonsils
- Habits like drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes
- Sex (males are more likely to develop OSA)
Central Sleep Apnea
While OSA is a muscle condition, CSA is a nervous system condition. The brain does not properly send signals to the throat muscles, causing the aforementioned over-relaxation and airflow impediment. Factors that increase the risk of developing CSA include:
- Increased age
- Family history and genetics
- Lifestyle habits like drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes
- Opioid use
- Health conditions like heart failure, stroke, or ALS
- Premature birth
Treatment-Emergent Central Sleep Apnea
This complex and rare form of sleep apnea, TECSA, occurs when CSA emerges or persists during treatment for OSA. In other words, OSA therapy may disrupt brain function, causing CSA. Individuals with TECSA can see improvement with existing treatment, or new treatment may be necessary.
Sleep Apnea in Veterans
Veterans with sleep apnea may experience any of the normal effects like daytime fatigue, dry mouth, and headaches. Lack of sleep also leads to other health problems, like diabetes, hypoxia-related heart disease (hypoxia is a lack of oxygen in the body), and emotional problems, such as relationship issues with sleeping partners.
Sleep Apnea Treatment for Veterans: CPAP
In 1980, an inventor reversed a paint compressor’s airflow and made the world’s first “continuous positive airway pressure” (CPAP) machine. Shortly thereafter, manufacturers started making and selling these gadgets as treatments for severe sleep apnea. But early models were so noisy that, in many cases, the cure was worse than the disease.
The Philips CPAP machine, which began selling in the United States around 2008, was a game changer. A polyurethane foam layer practically eliminated the machine’s unwanted noise.
Scientists soon discovered that the machine’s vibrations caused tiny, toxic polyurethane particles to break off and enter the patient’s body. A recall followed in 2021. VA doctors had written Philips CPAP prescriptions for millions of veterans by then. Because of that product recall, these veterans are now back to square one regarding sleep apnea treatment options.
Service Connection for Sleep Apnea
Many veterans develop sleep apnea during military service. A service-related connection is relatively clear in these situations, especially since the burden of proof in VA disability cases is only as likely as not.
Burn pit smoke, oil fire smoke, and other environmental toxins could also cause sleep apnea. Usually, an independent doctor or VA examiner must establish the connection between these toxins and sleep apnea.
A veteran may have seen a non-military doctor about these symptoms. Such records are a little more difficult for a VA disability attorney to obtain but are still useful.
Secondary Service Connection for Sleep Apnea
If a veteran develops sleep apnea due to a service-connected condition like PTSD, they will likely be entitled to benefits for sleep apnea on a secondary basis. Other recognized service-related illnesses that could cause sleep apnea include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), allergic rhinitis, and sinusitis.
What Is the VA Disability Rating for Sleep Apnea?
The aforementioned current medical diagnosis must usually include a sleep study. Based on the results of that study, as well as the veteran’s symptoms, one of the following sleep apnea VA disability rates will be applied:
- 0%: The Veteran has a service-related medical condition but is asymptomatic.
- 30%: Persistent daytime hypersomnolence (daytime sleepiness that does not improve even with sufficient sleep).
- 50%: The Veteran must regularly use a breathing assistance device, such as a CPAP machine.
- 100%: Advanced sleep apnea, including chronic respiratory failure with carbon dioxide retention requiring a tracheostomy.
Contact Hard-Working Attorneys
An attorney is a valuable partner in all phases of a disability claim. For a free consultation with an experienced Veterans disability lawyer, contact the Cameron Firm, PC at 800-861-7262 or fill out the contact box to your right. We are here to represent Veterans nationwide.
This article is for educational and marketing purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship.