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Sleep Apnea Disability VA Rating: How the VA Assesses and Rates This Condition

October 30, 2023

Sleep apnea is a serious condition that affects millions of people worldwide. For those who are suffering from sleep apnea, it can be a daily struggle to get a good night's sleep and function properly during the day. But did you know that sleep apnea is recognized by Veterans Affairs as a disability when service-related?

If you or someone you know is dealing with sleep apnea and wondering about the VA rating for disability, this article is for you. In this article, we’ll explore how the VA assesses and rates sleep apnea, the types of sleep apnea conditions, their symptoms, and the available treatment options. Read on to learn how to navigate the complexities of obtaining a fair VA rating for the condition.

Overview of Sleep Apnea Disability VA Rating

“The sleep apnea disability rating is determined by the severity of the veteran’s condition and the treatments required.”

The VA rates sleep apnea as a compensable service-connected disability. This means that if a veteran's sleep apnea is determined to be related to their military service, they may be eligible for monthly compensation.

The VA rates sleep apnea under Title 38 CFR § 4.97, Diagnostic Code 6847, with the rating levels dependent on the severity and required treatment. Here's a general breakdown:

  • A 0% rating is given if the veteran has a documented sleep disorder but it isn't severe enough to require the use of a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine and doesn't produce significant symptoms.

  • A 30% rating is assigned if the condition requires the use of a CPAP machine, a common treatment for sleep apnea.

  • Higher ratings, such as 50% or 100%, are given if the sleep apnea causes more severe symptoms like chronic respiratory failure with carbon dioxide retention or requires the veteran to use a tracheostomy.

The VA evaluation of disability from sleep apnea also takes into account the frequency and severity of symptoms, such as chronic daytime sleepiness, which can affect a veteran’s ability to work and perform daily activities. Veterans seeking a disability rating for sleep apnea will typically need to undergo a sleep study to confirm the diagnosis and establish the severity of the condition. It’s crucial for veterans to provide thorough medical records and, if applicable, statements that link their sleep apnea to service conditions. The connection to service can be direct, secondary, or aggravated by a service-connected condition.

Types of Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea, affecting more than 936 million adults worldwide.1 In this condition, the airway becomes blocked or collapses during sleep, leading to pauses in breathing. These obstructions are typically caused by the relaxing of throat muscles, which then impede the flow of air despite efforts to breathe. 

Individuals with OSA often snore loudly and experience restlessness during sleep, along with choking or gasping sensations, as they wake up frequently throughout the night to reopen their airways. OSA can be exacerbated by obesity, smoking, alcohol use, and the anatomy of one’s airway.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central Sleep Apnea is characterized by a lack of effort to breathe during sleep, stemming from the brain's inability to send the appropriate signals to muscles that control breathing. This type of sleep apnea is less about physical airway obstruction and more about communication failures between the brain and the body. 

CSA can be associated with conditions such as heart failure, brainstem injury, or neuromuscular diseases. It presents a unique set of challenges for treatment since it is not a mechanical issue but rather a problem of neurological control.

Complex Sleep Apnea

Complex Sleep Apnea, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea. It is sometimes discovered in patients who have been treated for OSA with CPAP therapy but continue to experience apnea events. 

These individuals may have had a preexisting but undiagnosed case of CSA, or the CPAP treatment may precipitate central apneas. This condition requires careful evaluation and often a more sophisticated form of positive airway pressure therapy, such as adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV), to regulate breathing patterns during sleep.

Mixed Sleep Apnea Syndrome

Mixed Sleep Apnea Syndrome, now commonly integrated into the diagnosis of complex sleep apnea, originally referred to as a condition where the patient experienced both obstructive and central apneas within the same night but not necessarily as a direct result of treating OSA. 

Managing mixed sleep apnea syndrome involves addressing both the obstructive and central components, often requiring a combination of therapies that might include CPAP, dental appliances, lifestyle changes, and addressing the underlying medical or neurological conditions that may contribute to the central apnea events.

Symptoms and Signs of Sleep Apnea

Loud Snoring

Loud snoring is often one of the most noticeable signs of obstructive sleep apnea. In fact, over 94% of people with sleep apnea report snoring.2 It is caused by the vibrations of soft tissues in the throat when air squeezes through the narrowed or blocked airway. While not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, and not all sleep apnea sufferers snore loudly, it is a key symptom that should prompt further investigation, especially if it is persistent, loud, and accompanied by other symptoms of sleep apnea.

Pauses in Breathing During the Night

One of the most characteristic signs of sleep apnea is when an individual experiences pauses in breathing while asleep, known as apneas. These can last from a few seconds to more than a minute and may occur multiple times per hour. Typically, these episodes are identified by a bed partner or through a sleep study. The cessation of breathing usually ends with a loud snort or choking sound as the person resumes breathing, disrupting sleep continuity.

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

Excessive daytime sleepiness results from the frequent interruptions of sleep caused by apneas, leading to poor sleep quality and quantity. Individuals with sleep apnea often find themselves feeling unrefreshed upon waking and struggle to stay awake during daytime activities, which can severely impact their daily functioning, increase the risk of accidents, and affect their quality of life.

Dry Mouth upon Waking

Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat can be signs of sleep apnea, often due to breathing through the mouth while sleeping as the body attempts to get more air. Mouth breathing bypasses the natural humidification provided by nasal passages, leading to dryness. Additionally, if using CPAP therapy, a poor-fitting mask can contribute to a dry mouth if air leaks out.

Morning Headaches

Frequent morning headaches are common among sleep apnea sufferers. These headaches can be attributed to low oxygen levels and fragmented sleep patterns. When breathing is disrupted, the body experiences decreased oxygen saturation, leading to vasodilation and headache. The lack of restorative sleep also contributes to waking up with headaches.

Irritability or Changes in Mood

Sleep apnea can lead to significant mood changes, such as irritability, anxiety, or depression. The chronic sleep disruption caused by sleep apnea affects the brain's ability to regulate emotions effectively. Sleep deprivation can impair cognitive processes, exacerbate stress responses, and alter neurotransmitter levels, all contributing to mood swings and irritability.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea

“A proper diagnosis allows healthcare providers to recommend the most suitable treatment plan, which can alleviate symptoms, improve sleep quality, and reduce the risk of associated health complications.”

Diagnosing sleep apnea typically begins with a medical history and a physical examination. Doctors will look for risk factors such as obesity, neck circumference, and anatomical differences that may contribute to sleep apnea. Patients are often asked about daytime sleepiness, snoring, and observed pauses in breathing during sleep. 

A definitive diagnosis usually requires a sleep study, known as polysomnography, which is conducted overnight in a sleep lab or at home with a portable monitoring device. This study tracks a patient's sleep stages, movements, breathing, heart rhythms, and oxygen levels.

For some, a simpler form of testing known as home sleep apnea testing (HSAT) may be sufficient. This is a more accessible option that monitors fewer physiological parameters. If sleep apnea is detected, the severity is categorized as mild, moderate, or severe based on the number of apnea events per hour of sleep.

Treatment Options

The treatment for sleep apnea depends on the severity of the condition and the underlying cause. Options include:

  • Lifestyle Changes: For mild cases of sleep apnea, doctors may recommend lifestyle changes such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or altering sleeping positions. Reducing alcohol consumption and avoiding sedatives before bedtime can also be helpful.

  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): The most common treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea is the use of a CPAP machine, which delivers a stream of air through a mask to keep the airway open during sleep.3 Proper use of the CPAP machine can eliminate symptoms of sleep apnea and prevent the associated risks.

  • Other Positive Airway Pressure Devices: Besides CPAP, other devices like BPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) and APAP (auto-titrating positive airway pressure) may be used, which automatically adjust the pressure as needed.

  • Oral Appliances: These devices are fitted by a dentist and work by holding the jaw in a position that helps keep the airway open. They are often used for mild to moderate sleep apnea and are a preferred choice for patients who cannot tolerate CPAP.

  • Surgery: If other treatments are ineffective and there is a clear anatomical problem, such as enlarged tonsils, surgical options may be considered. Surgical procedures can range from tissue removal or shrinkage in the throat to jaw repositioning surgeries.

  • Nerve Stimulators: A relatively new treatment involves the implantation of a device that stimulates the nerve controlling tongue movement, thereby keeping the airway open.

  • Supplemental Oxygen: In some cases, especially when central sleep apnea is involved, supplemental oxygen at night may be necessary.

The choice of treatment will depend on various factors, including the type of sleep apnea, the cause, the severity of the condition, and the patient’s preferences and needs. It's also common to use a combination of treatments for better outcomes. Follow-up and ongoing care are important to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment and to make any necessary adjustments.

Conclusion: Dealing with Sleep Apnea and VA Benefits

In closing, understanding the sleep apnea disability VA rating is key for veterans to get the right support, not just money. Getting the correct diagnosis, treatment on time, and managing sleep apnea well are important. Also, good paperwork is needed for a successful claim. This helps veterans improve their lives with sleep apnea.

Discover how to effectively navigate the VA rating chart for PTSD and secure the benefits you've earned. Read the guide to take the first step towards understanding your eligibility and the potential compensation available to you.

Michael Blair contributes his expertise to help veterans access government benefits and resources. Through his informative articles and guides, he plays a vital role in empowering veterans and improving their quality of life.
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