Health & Fitness

Is Sleep Apnea A Disability? Find The Truth!

Sleep apnea is not considered a disability by the Social Security Administration (SSA). However, severe symptoms may qualify for disability benefits under certain conditions. These ...

by Kendra Reed

Is Sleep Apnea A Disability? Find The Truth!

Sleep apnea is not considered a disability by the Social Security Administration (SSA). However, severe symptoms may qualify for disability benefits under certain conditions. These include an employment history, a medical condition that meets the SSA’s definition of disability, and a duration of at least 12 months. The SSA evaluates sleep apnea under specific sections of the Blue Book. To prove a medical case, a sleep specialist and a disability attorney must be consulted. Consultation is essential to ensure the necessary criteria for disability benefits are met.

Is Sleep Apnea A Medical Condition?

Sleep Apnea

Yes, sleep apnea is a medical condition that can have serious health implications if left untreated. It is a disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep, leading to disrupted sleep patterns and decreased oxygen levels in the blood. Sleep apnea can be classified into two main types: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). OSA occurs due to a physical blockage in the airway, often associated with factors like excess weight, enlarged tonsils, or a narrow throat. On the other hand, CSA results from the brain not signaling the muscles to breathe properly.

The consequences of untreated sleep apnea can be severe, including an increased risk of various health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, heart failure, stroke, and even a shortened lifespan. Additionally, sleep apnea can lead to daytime fatigue, mood changes, depression, anxiety, and drowsy driving, which significantly raises the risk of accidents.

Early diagnosis and adherence to treatment are crucial in managing sleep apnea effectively. Treatment options include continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices, oral appliances, nerve stimulators, and surgery, all aimed at ensuring proper airflow during sleep to prevent the negative health outcomes associated with this condition.

Causes Of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. The causes of sleep apnea depend on the type, with two main categories: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA).

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

The primary cause of OSA is a physical blockage in the airway, which can occur due to various factors such as:

  1. Excess Weight and Obesity: Being overweight or obese is the most common cause of OSA, as excess fat in the neck and throat can narrow the airway.
  2. Large Neck Circumference: A neck circumference above 17 inches (43 cm) for men and 15 inches (38 cm) for women can increase the risk of OSA.
  3. Narrow Throat: A naturally narrow airway can also contribute to OSA.
  4. Enlarged Tonsils or Adenoids: Large tonsils or adenoids can block the airway and cause OSA, especially in children.
  5. Smoking and Drinking: Smoking and drinking can relax the throat muscles, making it easier for the airway to become blocked.
  6. Family History: Having a family history of sleep apnea can increase the risk of developing the condition.
  7. Ethnicity: Sleep apnea is more common in African Americans, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders than in whites.
  8. Other Medical Conditions: Certain medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure can also increase the risk of OSA.

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

The primary cause of CSA is a problem with the brain’s control of breathing, which can be due to:

  1. Hormonal Changes: Hormonal fluctuations, such as those experienced during menopause or pregnancy, can affect breathing patterns and lead to CSA.
  2. Brain Disorders: Certain brain disorders, such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease, can disrupt the brain’s control of breathing and cause CSA.
  3. Opioid Use: Long-term use of opioid medications can slow down breathing rates and increase the risk of CSA.
  4. Age: CSA is more common in older adults, particularly those over 60.

Other Factors

Other factors that can contribute to sleep apnea include:

  1. Sleep Position: Sleeping on your back can increase the risk of OSA by allowing the tongue and soft tissues to fall back and block the airway.
  2. Allergies: Allergies can cause nasal congestion, which can increase the risk of OSA.
  3. Deviated Septum: A deviated septum can narrow the airway and increase the risk of OSA.


Untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious complications such as:

  1. Daytime Fatigue: Repeated awakenings during sleep can cause severe daytime drowsiness and fatigue.
  2. High Blood Pressure or Heart Problems: Sudden drops in blood oxygen levels can increase blood pressure and strain the cardiovascular system, leading to heart problems.
  3. Type 2 Diabetes: Sleep apnea increases the risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
  4. Metabolic Syndrome: Sleep apnea is linked to metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that includes high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood sugar, and excess fat around the waistline.
  5. Complications with Medicines and Surgery: OSA can cause complications with certain medications and general anesthesia.

Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial in managing sleep apnea and reducing the risk of these complications.

Is Sleep Apnea A Disability?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) does not recognize sleep apnea as a disability in itself. However, as explained in the article “Disability Benefits for Sleep Apnea,” if your sleep apnea is severe enough to cause serious complications that prevent you from working, you may qualify for disability benefits.

To be eligible for benefits, you must meet the SSA’s definition of disability, which includes the following criteria:

  • Your symptoms must prevent you from working or earning a living.
  • You must have suffered from your disability for at least 12 months in the past, or doctors expect you to have a disability for at least 12 months.

How To Qualify For Disability With Sleep Apnea

While sleep apnea itself is not considered a disability, you may qualify for benefits if your condition meets the criteria for other impairments listed in the SSA’s Blue Book. As mentioned in the article “Social Security Disability Benefits for Sleep Apnea,” some ways you could potentially qualify include:

  1. Chronic pulmonary hypertension (listing 3.09)
  2. Chronic heart failure or cor pulmonale (right-sided heart failure) (listing 4.02)
  3. Severe cognitive deficits, mood disturbances, or behavioral issues (listing 12.02)

If your sleep apnea has led to complications such as these, you may automatically qualify for disability benefits. Additionally, the SSA will consider any other impairments you may have that exacerbate the symptoms of your sleep apnea or affect your ability to work.

Is Severe Sleep Apnea Dangerous?

Yes, severe sleep apnea is dangerous if left untreated. It can lead to a range of serious health complications, including:

  1. Increased Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke: Severe sleep apnea can raise blood pressure and stress levels, increasing the risk of heart disease, heart failure, and stroke.
  2. Type 2 Diabetes: Sleep apnea can contribute to insulin resistance and increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  3. Metabolic Syndrome: The condition can also contribute to metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that includes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and excess fat around the waistline, which increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  4. Liver Complications: Untreated sleep apnea can cause abnormal liver function test results and liver scarring.
  5. Pregnancy Complications: Sleep apnea during pregnancy can increase the risk of complications such as high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, cesarean section, premature birth, and low birth weight.
  6. Drowsy Driving and Accidents: Daytime fatigue caused by sleep apnea can lead to drowsy driving, which significantly increases the risk of car accidents, both non-fatal and fatal.
  7. Shortened Lifespan: Untreated sleep apnea can shorten one’s lifespan due to the cumulative effects of these health complications.
  8. Mental Health Issues: Sleep apnea can also contribute to depression, anxiety, and mood changes due to chronic sleep deprivation.
  9. Increased Risk of Cancer: Research suggests that sleep apnea may be linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, although the evidence is still limited.

Treatment for severe sleep apnea typically involves the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices, which help maintain patent airways and improve oxygen flow to the brain. Untreated sleep apnea can have severe and long-term consequences for one’s health, making early diagnosis and treatment crucial.

Applying For Disability Benefits With Sleep Apnea

To increase your chances of qualifying for disability benefits due to sleep apnea, it’s crucial to provide comprehensive medical documentation and treatment reports. This should include:

  • Your medical history and physical exam findings related to sleep apnea
  • Results of imaging, pulmonary function tests, and other relevant lab tests
  • Details of any prescribed treatments for your sleep apnea and your response to them

The SSA will also consider the results of specific pulmonary function tests, such as forced vital capacity (FVC), forced expiratory volume (FEV1), and evidence of chronic impairment of gas exchange or exacerbations requiring hospitalization.

It’s important to note that even if you don’t meet the criteria for a specific listing, the SSA will evaluate your “residual functional capacity” (RFC) to determine if your sleep apnea prevents you from performing any type of work. This assessment considers factors such as excessive daytime sleepiness, cognitive impairment, and mood disturbances that may impact your ability to work.

Diagnosis And Tests Of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is typically diagnosed through a combination of medical history, physical examination, and sleep studies. The most common tests used to diagnose sleep apnea include:

Polysomnography (Sleep Study)

  • The gold standard for diagnosing sleep apnea is a polysomnogram, or sleep study, conducted in a sleep laboratory.
  • During the test, you are hooked up to equipment that monitors your heart, lung, and brain activity, breathing patterns, arm and leg movements, and blood oxygen levels while you sleep.
  • The sleep study can help diagnose sleep apnea and rule out other sleep disorders.

Home Sleep Apnea Testing

  • Under certain circumstances, you may undergo an at-home version of polysomnography to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Home sleep apnea testing kits monitor a limited number of variables to detect breathing pauses during sleep.
  • If in-home testing indicates sleep apnea, a sleep specialist will discuss a treatment plan.

Physical Examination

  • Your healthcare provider will examine the back of your throat, mouth, and nose.
  • Your neck and waist circumference may be measured, and your blood pressure checked.

Sleep Diary

  • You may be asked to keep a sleep diary for up to two weeks, recording information such as bedtime, number of nighttime awakenings, and wake-up time.
  • This helps pinpoint patterns in sleep and aids in diagnosing sleep disorders.

If sleep apnea is suspected based on your symptoms and medical history, your healthcare provider will likely refer you to a sleep specialist for further evaluation and testing. The specialist can diagnose the extent of your condition and develop a treatment plan.

Management And Treatment Of Sleep Apnea

The management and treatment of sleep apnea typically involves a combination of lifestyle changes, medical devices, and in some cases, surgery. The main goals of treatment are to alleviate symptoms, improve sleep quality, and reduce the risk of associated health complications.

Lifestyle Changes

  • Weight loss: Losing even a small amount of weight (10% of body weight) can significantly improve sleep apnea symptoms, especially in overweight or obese individuals.
  • Avoiding alcohol and sedatives: Alcohol and certain medications can relax the throat muscles, exacerbating sleep apnea. Avoiding these substances, especially close to bedtime, can help.
  • Quitting smoking: Smoking can cause inflammation and narrowing of the airways, worsening sleep apnea. Quitting smoking may improve symptoms.
  • Changing sleep positions: Sleeping on your side instead of your back can help reduce sleep apnea episodes, as gravity is less likely to pull the tongue and soft tissues to the back of the throat.

Medical Devices

  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): CPAP is considered the gold standard treatment for sleep apnea. It uses a machine to deliver a constant flow of air through a mask, keeping the airways open during sleep.
  • Auto-Adjusting Positive Airway Pressure (APAP): APAP is similar to CPAP but automatically adjusts the air pressure based on your breathing patterns.
  • Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP): BiPAP provides higher pressure when you inhale and lower pressure when you exhale, making it easier to breathe out.
  • Oral Appliances: Custom-made oral devices that fit over the teeth can help keep the jaw in a forward position, preventing the tongue and soft tissues from blocking the airway. They are most effective for mild to moderate sleep apnea.


  • Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP): This procedure removes excess tissue from the back of the throat to widen the airway. It is often considered when CPAP treatment fails.
  • Maxillomandibular Advancement (MMA): MMA involves moving the upper and lower jaws forward to increase the space behind the tongue and soft palate, reducing airway obstruction.
  • Hypoglossal Nerve Stimulation: This involves implanting a small device that stimulates the hypoglossal nerve, which controls tongue movement, keeping the airway open during sleep.

Regular follow-up with a healthcare provider is essential to monitor the effectiveness of treatment and make adjustments as needed. Adherence to treatment, whether it’s using a CPAP machine or wearing an oral appliance, is crucial for managing sleep apnea and reducing the risk of associated health complications.

Tips For Living With Sleep Apnea

While navigating the disability application process, it’s essential to take steps to manage your sleep apnea effectively. The practical tips for coping with sleep apnea, include:

  • Avoiding high-risk activities like driving or operating heavy machinery when drowsy
  • Considering changing sleeping positions to reduce symptoms
  • Minimizing alcohol consumption, as it can exacerbate breathing problems at night
  • Maintaining a healthy weight and practicing good bedtime habits
  • Quitting smoking, as it can damage your airways and increase the likelihood of collapse during sleep

By following these recommendations and adhering to your prescribed treatment plan, you can improve your overall quality of life and potentially mitigate the severity of your sleep apnea symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How long should a baby sleep each day?

Newborns typically require 14-17 hours of sleep per day, with frequent naps throughout the day and night.

2. What should I do if my baby wakes up frequently during the night?

Try adjusting their feeding schedule, checking for potential discomfort, and ensuring a quiet, dark, and comfortable sleep environment.

3. Can I use these techniques for an older baby or toddler?

While some techniques may still be effective, you may need to adapt or introduce new methods as your child grows. Consistency and a bedtime routine tailored to their age and needs are key.

4. What if none of these techniques seem to work for my baby?4.

Every baby is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. If you’ve tried multiple techniques without success, consult with your pediatrician or a sleep specialist for personalized guidance.

5. How can I create a conducive sleep environment for my baby?

Keep the room dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. Use blackout curtains, white noise machines, and ensure a firm and comfortable sleep surface. Maintaining a consistent sleep routine and environment is crucial.


Sleep apnea is a serious condition that can have profound impacts on your health and well-being. While it may not be recognized as a disability on its own, if your sleep apnea leads to complications that prevent you from working, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. By understanding the eligibility criteria, providing comprehensive medical documentation, and taking steps to manage your condition, you can increase your chances of qualifying for the benefits you need. Remember, the process can be complex, but with perseverance and the right support, you can navigate it successfully.


  • Kendra Reed

    Dr. Kendra Reed is a dedicated general medicine physician with 7 years of clinical experience. After graduating from medical school, she completed her residency in internal medicine, developing a well-rounded skillset in diagnosing and treating a diverse range of conditions. Patients appreciate Dr. Reed's warm bedside manner and commitment to providing comprehensive, personalized care. In addition to her clinical work, she is actively involved in community outreach programs, educating the public on important health topics. Dr. Reed is known for her ability to establish trusting relationships with her patients and help them achieve their wellness goals.

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