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Beware and Be Aware of Microsleep

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Beware and Be Aware of Microsleep

We’ve all heard about the fact that you need at least 7-8 hours of sleep at night, for optimum health. We’ve also heard that brief afternoon naps help to keep us fresh and increase productivity. But have you heard of something called ‘microsleep’? Yes, microsleep does exist, and it can be a sign of something more serious!

What is Microsleep?

As its name suggests, Microsleep (MS) refers to a short period of sleep, as short as a fraction of a second. Microsleeps can occur alternating with equally short periods of wakefulness. People who have microsleeps generally aren’t aware that they’re actually losing consciousness for that brief period of time.

Being so short, microsleeps don’t involve regular signs of sleeping. Instead, they are usually identified by signs like these:

  • Eyes drooping and slowly closing

  • Head nodding gently, when a sudden head jerks wakes the person

  • Constant blinking

  • Blank expression

Why does Microsleep occur?

As you can judge by the short duration of microsleeps, they are certainly not power naps! The brain requires at least a minute and a half of sleep to remember it as sleep, so microsleeps are usually considered as just a temporary lack of focus. Unfortunately, they are much more dangerous than that.

Microsleep can be a strong indication of sleep deprivation caused by a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, which is known to cause daytime sleepiness. Sleep apnea is a condition in which the airway collapses, blocking oxygen supply for short intervals throughout the night. This results in interrupted and incomplete sleep, which in turn leads to day time sleepiness including microsleep. Besides sleep apnea, other causes of microsleep include doing monotonous tasks repeatedly.

How can Microsleep Affect You?

Even though microsleeps last under a minute, they can prove dangerous enough to be fatal. The biggest dangers are when driving or operating heavy machinery. Since driving involves the safety of pedestrians and other drivers as well, microsleeps are considered especially dangerous when they occur while driving a vehicle.  

Several studies on driver safety conducted over the years have shown a strong correlation between microsleeps caused by sleep apnea and driving accidents. Here are some facts:

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, USA, reveals that 2% of crashes resulting in injury and 2.5% of crashes resulting in death are due to drowsy driving including microsleep.

  • The Department for Transport in the U.S. estimates that 20% of road accidents are related to sleep disorders.

  • A road safety charity called Brake conducted a survey of 1000 drivers in the U.S. and found that 45% men admitted to microsleeping while driving

  • 44% people, again in U.S., who drive late at night become dangerously sleepy

If you still need proof about the dangers of microsleep or sleep apnea, here are some sleep deprivation-caused disasters:

  • An Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic in May 2009, because the pilot was severely sleep deprived.

  • A train derailed in Waterfall, Australia because the guard was microsleeping and could not manage the engine when the driver had a heart attack.

  • In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded due to overheating, because the guards were sleep deprived and mistakenly turned off the cooling valves.

As you can see, microsleeping and sleep apnea can have severe consequences, endangering the lives of many others along with the person suffering from microsleep.

Managing Microsleep

While you can know that you’ve been microsleeping with a sudden jerk of the head, its time for you to visit a sleep specialist. A sleep study can reveal a lot about your sleep patterns, the sleep doctor can also conduct other tests to identify if you’ve been microsleeping.

If the sleep doctor has confirmed that your microsleeping is due to sleep apnea, he’ll probably suggest treatment options, which may include the use of a CPAP device. This device will help open up the airway and avoid oxygen desaturation resulting in good sleep. This eliminates any sleep deprivation or sleepiness during the day, and keeps you fresh and alert while driving or carrying out your other tasks. So if you’ve been microsleeping, do visit a sleep specialist right away; remember, early treatment can save lives!


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