Professional Football Players More Likely To Suffer From Obstructive Sleep Apnea


If you stay tuned to the Easy Blog, you may have read about former NFL star Warren Sapp or former offensive guard Aaron Taylor. What do these NFL heroes have in common besides the fact that they both played professional football in the same league? Well, they both have something in common that studies show is common for many current and former NFL players: obstructive sleep apnea. By this point, it is pretty certain that football sensation Reggie White died from complications caused by the disorder, but could more NFL players possibly meet the same fate?

In one study, conducted by researchers at the University of Western Ontario, the results showed that an astounding one-third of NFL players suffered from obstructive sleep apnea. The study recruited fifty-two professional football players from eight randomly selected teams: the Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans, and the Washington Redskins. They were given diagnostics to test the severity of their sleep apnea and how the disorder affected their playing abilities.

The results of the study, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that 14% of the pro players have obstructive sleep apnea. According to the results of previous tests with people within the same age demographic, sleep apnea is nearly five times more prevalent in professional football players. In addition, the sleep disorder is even more predominant in players that are deemed high-risk – 34% of linebackers, defensive players and pass receivers have sleep apnea; mostly due to their large frames and bulky necks.

What’s perhaps most interesting about this study is the way obstructive sleep apnea affects a professional football player’s performance on the field. The results of the study showed that the sleep disorder slows down their performance by a striking 11%. You can imagine that if sleep apnea can slow down a charging linebacker, it can slow you down too. While the test mainly focused on sleep apnea’s affects on the players and not the benefits of CPAP – researchers can only assume that regular CPAP therapy would significantly improve their performance on the field.

In another study, which was carried out by the Mayo Clinic and presented the American College of Cardiology Annual Scientific Session in Orlando, researchers focused their sights on retired NFL players – particularly linemen. They found that 60% of retired linemen – with an average age of 54 – suffered from sleep apnea. In other players – who took different positions on the field – sleep apnea was found in 46% of the participants. In addition, about 34% of linemen – and 32% of other players – had high blood pressure, which is a condition closely associated with sleep apnea.

When it comes down to it, there are many factors that play in to why working and retired professional football players suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. In retired football players, weight is a primary factor – on top of having a naturally stocky build. As for the players still on the field, they too have a stockier and larger frame, which presents a perfect storm for obstructive sleep apnea. What do the results of these studies mean for people who don’t play football professionally? It means that no one is impervious to sleep apnea – no one – and in the end, it is critical to tackle sleep apnea before it tackles you.


Source: “NFL Players Suffer From Sleep Disorders.” New England Journal of Medicine via NBC News. January 23, 2003.

Source: “Retired National Football League Linemen Have High Incidence Of Sleep Apnea” Science Daily. March 27, 2009.