Disability benefits claims for veterans dealing with sleep apnea are some of the most common that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs receives. In some years, the VA may approve as many as 280,000 sleep apnea claims, but it’s important to note that the VA will deny many more for the disorder. If you think you might qualify for VA disability compensation based on your sleep apnea, we’ve summarized all you need to know about sleep apnea’s most common symptoms and how they factor into a VA disability claim.

5 Common Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

  1. Loud Snoring
  2. Dry Mouth
  3. Excessive Daytime Sleepiness
  4. Headache
  5. Gasping For Air

The inability to get the kind of restful sleep necessary for optimal health can affect a veteran’s ability to effectively secure and maintain gainful employment, which is often the case with sleep apnea. If sleep apnea is making it so difficult to concentrate, stay awake, and maintain effective relationships with colleagues that you can’t feasibly do your day-to-day work, you may be eligible for VA disability benefits.

While the VA often denies VA disability claims associated with sleep apnea, there is reason for optimism – when the right sleep disturbance symptoms are supported with the right kind of documentation, there’s no reason to believe that the VA would deny your sleep apnea claim, or at the very least that you can’t ultimately win your case through the appeals process. Once your VA claim has been approved, you also may be eligible for VA disability back pay.

This is why it’s often important to work with a trusted and qualified VA disability attorney, who can evaluate your sleep apnea claim from the very beginning, advise as to its chances of being approved, and help track down the documentation and medical evidence you need to effectively support your VA claim. Before you get started, make sure to review our list of symptoms and work with your attorney to determine whether you have the right kind of documentation to support them. Ultimately, your goal is to present to the VA the most comprehensive and medically supported military disability claim that you possibly can.

Sleep Apnea VA Rating

As with most disabilities, the VA rating for sleep apnea depends on your particular situation. The military provides an extremely physically demanding environment that can lead to many conditions associated with sleep apnea, ranging from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to various injuries that limit mobility, plus exposure to a wide variety of dust and fumes. Some indications are that one in five U.S. veterans has sleep apnea, and in one study, veterans of combat in Iraq were more than 45% more likely than non-combatants to develop sleep apnea.

Before considering your VA claim for a sleep apnea disability rating, the VA will insist that you provide the results of a sleep study, which can help define the severity of your condition. You can choose to undergo a polysomnogram that measures brain activity, blood pressure, eye movements, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, snoring, and chest movements throughout the night as you sleep. This type of sleep study typically takes place at a medical facility or specialized sleep lab.

You can choose to sleep with a home-based monitor that records much of the same information while allowing you to sleep in your own bed at home. Depending on the results of the home test, a sleep specialist may advise that you follow up with a more formal sleep study as part of your VA claim.

Based on the results of your sleep study, along with any other medical documentation you submit with your VA disability claim, the VA can choose to rate your sleep apnea as a respiratory illness according to four different levels of disability benefit, as follow:

  • 100%: chronic respiratory failure that includes carbon dioxide retention or "cor pulmonale" – enlargement or failure of the right side of the heart. This level of respiratory disability also may require a tracheotomy.
  • 50%: Requires assistance to breathe healthily during the night, including sleeping with a continuous airway pressure device, or CPAP machine, or dental appliances or other devices designed to keep your airway open and prevent periods of suspended breathing throughout the night.
  • 30%:  Signified by excessive daytime hypersomnolence – chronic daytime sleepiness that doesn’t improve even when you get a recommended amount of sleep.
  • 0%: Indicates that the claimant is largely asymptomatic, but does show documented sleep apnea.

For the most part, if you’re a disabled veteran with a sleep apnea claim, the 50% sleep apnea rating is your best-case scenario. This places a disabled veteran in the VA’s Group 1 for treatment, and the condition is given such a serious VA disability rating because of sleep apnea’s ability to cause grave long-term damage.

Please note that for the 50% rating, the VA must see documentation that the breathing apparatus you’re using is medically prescribed. So, in addition to providing the prescription for your breathing assistance device, you’ll also need to include a statement from your physician attesting to the medical need for the device. Your veterans disability attorney can help you work with your physician on this.

The VA also will want to see documentation that your sleep apnea condition has either developed or become progressively worse during your time of active military service, and that your current condition can be tied back to your time of service.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that can detrimentally affect someone’s overall health and well-being. People with untreated sleep apnea routinely stop breathing throughout the night – sometimes as many as hundreds of times within one night’s sleep, resulting in the brain getting decreased oxygen.

The VA recognizes three different types of sleep apnea, as follows:

  1. Obstructive sleep apnea: This is the most common form of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the airway becomes blocked during sleep – usually because the soft tissue at the back of the throat collapses during sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, obstructive sleep apnea affects around 18 million Americans.
  2. Central sleep apnea: With this kind of sleep apnea, the airway isn’t necessarily blocked during sleep, but the brain doesn’t trigger the muscles to breathe appropriately. This usually ties back to some type of instability in the respiratory control center of the brain.
  3. Mixed sleep apnea – A combination of the two types of sleep apnea listed above.

While some view sleep apnea as more of a nuisance than anything else, when left untreated it can result in some serious long-term health effects. For example, excessive daytime sleepiness can lead to difficulty concentrating, along with falling asleep at work, which can make completing work duties extremely challenging. People who suffer from sleep apnea are at a much higher risk of being involved in workplace accidents and motor vehicle collisions.

The sudden drops in blood oxygen levels that come from prolonged periods of not breathing during the night easily can lead to issues with high blood pressure and heart issues. These repetitive drops strain the whole cardiovascular system, putting you at a higher risk of stroke, heart attack, and abnormal heartbeats.

Those with untreated sleep problems associated with sleep apnea also show a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders, plus a higher chance of developing liver problems such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. The livers of those with sleep apnea are also more likely to exhibit significant scarring. Dealing with sleep apnea – particularly obstructive sleep apnea – can increase your risk of complications after surgery and with some medications, especially those related to anesthesia.

5 Common Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

While every sleeper is different, sleep apnea as a disorder does present with several distinct symptoms, which we’ve outlined below.

1. Loud Snoring

Sleepers usually snore when the soft tissues of the neck and back of the throat collapse or narrow and block their airway. As you try to breathe, these tissues vibrate, which makes the vibratory noise we know as snoring. People snore because of many other issues besides sleep apnea: enlarged tonsils, a deviated septum, an enlarged uvula, congestion, weight gain, or drinking alcohol right before sleep.

The difference with the kind of snoring associated with sleep apnea is that the snoring is also accompanied by stretches during which you stop breathing because your airway is blocked, as with obstructive sleep apnea, or when your brain fails to instruct your body to breathe, as with central sleep apnea. Such pauses may be followed by gasping, choking, snorting, or otherwise struggling for air.

2. Dry Mouth

In addition to snoring, sleep apnea can cause mouth breathing while sleeping, which causes many sleepers to wake up with an extremely dry mouth, or xerostomia. One study found that out of roughly 1,000 adults, 31.4% of those with sleep apnea woke up with a dry mouth, compared to just 3.2% of sleepers without sleep apnea.

Dry mouth sounds like a nuisance, but it also can be linked to issues with gum disease, cavities, anxiety, and a decreased sense of taste, which in some cases can lead to a decreased quality of nutrition.

3. Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

The inability to get a good night’s sleep eventually results in sleep debt, which can mean excessive daytime sleepiness and an inability to concentrate. It should go without saying that excessive daytime sleepiness can spell trouble.

The ability to focus, concentrate, and maintain collaborative working relationships can be dramatically decreased when someone doesn’t get healthy, restful sleep. Many jobs require people to maintain extreme levels of focus and caution or risk serious, even fatal, on-the-job injuries.

4. Headache

Sleep apnea headaches are a common symptom of the condition. As many as 50% of sleep apnea sufferers routinely wake up with morning headaches. These headaches are caused by the decreases in oxygen levels that occur when the sleeper stops breathing throughout the night. These lower levels of oxygen, combined with carbon dioxide buildup, can lead to morning headaches typically associated with sleep apnea.

The carbon dioxide buildup also causes the blood vessels around the brain to dilate, which can result in a throbbing, migraine-like headache. Sleep apnea headaches usually cause pain on both sides of the head, dissipate once you wake up and begin breathing normally – typically within an hour – and recur on a regular basis.

5. Gasping For Air

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most typical kind of sleep apnea that leads sleepers to wake during the night gasping for air, sometimes feeling as if they’re suffocating. When the throat muscles relax so much that they block your airway, it can cause you to wake abruptly, gasping to get air into your lungs. This is an extremely common symptom of sleep apnea, and it can be quite frightening for sleepers. The sleeper may not always awake when this happens, though, and may regain normal breathing while still asleep.

VA Disability Benefits for Sleep Apnea

Winning a VA disability claim for sleep apnea is an uphill battle, but it isn’t impossible. With the information presented here, you can work with your VA disability attorney to evaluate the strength of your sleep apnea disability claim and decide whether applying for VA disability compensation is the best path for you.