A new medical study finds that up to one-third of NFL players have sleep apnea, a disorder that creates serious health risks and increases the chance that players will not get a good night's sleep before they hit the gridiron.
Fifty-two professional football players from eight randomly selected NFL teams were tested for the obstructive sleep apnea study, cited in the latest issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious type of sleep disorder in which sufferers stop breathing involuntarily as many as 20 to 30 times per hour during sleep, and are at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
As many as 18 million Americans are believed to suffer from sleep apnea, according to the National Institutes of Health. Because their sleep is constantly interrupted, those with sleep apnea do not get a full night of deep, restful sleep.
The presence of sleep apnea among the pro football group was 14 percent overall, nearly five times higher than noted in previous studies of similarly aged adults. It was even more common for higher risk players — 34 percent of linebackers, defensive players responsible for stopping rushers and pass receivers, suffered from it.
Always Tired in the Morning
Nate Hobgood-Chittick, who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, wasn't part of the study, but he discovered he had sleep apnea back in 1998 as a rookie with the New York Giants.
"I had always been tired when I would wake up in the morning and at different times throughout the day, but mostly in the mornings," Hobgood-Chittick said. As he began to gain weight for football purposes, his snoring increased.
"It got to a point where it was really bad," he said. "My wife complained about it, and often slept somewhere else."
Then he overheard someone in the locker room one day talking about sleep apnea and thought he might have it, too. Sure enough, he was evaluated by doctors and diagnosed with it.
The preliminary research suggests that the condition could slow a player's reaction time by 11 percent, said Dr. Charles George of the University of Western Ontario, who led the study. Researchers are planning further tests to see if treating the sleep disorder can improve a player's performance. One way to treat it is by sleeping with a CPAP machine equipped with a face mask that forces extra air into the lungs and keeps the airways open.
That is the route that Hobgood-Chittick went — though he did so reluctantly.
"The first day I had the machine I threw it across the room because I didn't want to wear it," he said. "It's not exactly sexy to wear to bed. The machine is about the size of a football. There's a tube that I comes over it, and a mask."
But if he doesn't wear it, he is tired the next morning.
Other players he knows wear them too.
Thick-Necked Snorers at Risk
If it goes untreated, sleep apnea can lead to life threatening diseases including heart disease, hypertension and stroke.
Males who are heavy, have thick necks and a history of snoring are at increased risk for sleep apnea. Among current NFL players, 338 weigh 300 pounds or more, compared with at least 200 in 1996, 10 in 1986 and none in 1976, said George, citing NFL statistics.
Players from the Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans, and the Washington Redskins served as the study subjects for the study.
Beyond the football players, the study results are significant because men of similar size and age, whose physical health may not be as good as the athletes tested, may also have sleep apnea and go undiagnosed for many years. It affects members of both sexes, but is more common among men, and people with large body mass and a snoring habit.