Asbestosis frequently diagnosed as obstructive sleep apnea syndrome

By Treven Pyles

Posted on November 26th, 2020

Asbestosis is a debilitating lung condition caused by long-term exposure to asbestos. Because asbestosis is a progressive disease that affects breathing by hardening and scarring the lungs, it's important for people with a history of asbestos exposure in the workplace, who experience symptoms of sleep apnea to be correctly diagnosed.

For about a hundred years, asbestos was in heavy use in thousands of industrial products, especially related to construction and maintenance. Soon enough, its harmful effects have been confirmed; however, by then its benefits seemed so useful that many companies were willing to overlook potential health and safety issues. The cost in human lives is still being paid to this day because the effects of asbestos exposure only become noticeable decades after the initial exposure.

The vast majority of people who suffer from asbestosis had worked in industrial facilities such as shipyards, chemical plants, oil refineries, or automotive assembly plants between 1935 and 1980 when asbestos was highly prevalent in these occupational settings. Because asbestosis is a progressive disease that affects breathing by hardening and scarring the lung, it's important for people with a history of asbestos exposure in the workplace, who experience symptoms of sleep apnea to be correctly diagnosed. Correct diagnosis and prompt treatment can relieve symptoms of chest congestion, tightness, and difficulty breathing and extend your life expectancy.

Prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea in patients with asbestos-related lung conditions

Symptoms of asbestos-related pulmonary diseases appear gradually only after large areas of the lungs become scarred. The scarring causes the lungs to stiffen. The first symptoms are mild shortness of breath and a decreased ability to exercise. Gradually, breathing becomes more and more difficult. In about 35% of people with asbestosis, for example, severe shortness of breath and respiratory failure develop.

Difficulty breathing during the day and sudden awakenings with a sensation of gasping or choking arise because of pleural thickening caused by the longtime presence of asbestos fibers, or pleural effusion, the buildup of extra fluid in the space between the lungs and the chest wall. Cancerous tumors of the lungs can restrict the regular movement of the lung during breathing, diaphragm, heart, and other organs in the chest and abdominal cavities. Because any abnormal growth in the chest cavity can reduce the space into which the lungs usually expand, breathing becomes more difficult, leading to breathlessness.

The importance of prompt and accurate diagnosis of pulmonary abnormalities in asbestos-exposed industrial workers and veterans

Asbestos-related lung diseases are difficult to diagnose due to the fact that they resemble the symptoms of much less threatening respiratory conditions such as COPD, asthma, or obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Because asbestos-related diseases require a particular therapeutic approach, misdiagnosis can have terrible consequences for your health. Receiving treatment for the wrong illness when you actually have a progressive condition like asbestosis, will impact your prognosis dramatically, and will also prevent you from claiming the amount of financial compensation you are truly eligible for, as asbestos trust funds provide payment depending primarily on your diagnosis.

Case study - Patrick N. Pensacola, Fla.

I've served 18 years in the Navy, from WWII through Korea, retiring in June 1965. All but four of those years I was stationed in the engine control rooms of destroyers and aircraft carriers with their asbestos-covered steam pipes and steel decks. My job included applying asbestos insulation to the pipes when repairs were needed, as well as standing on steel decks for hours during each of my duty shifts as a machinery repairman.

Shortly after retirement, I was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea - a severe disorder of interrupted breathing during sleep - and prescribed a CPAP machine. I was admitted to a Naval Hospital for treatment. The doctor gave me some medicine for the headaches and discounted my extreme tiredness, saying, "You mean you're just falling asleep quickly." When I went to the VA for follow-up treatment I was sent to a civilian otolaryngologist who continued my treatment for sleep apnea.

In the meantime, I've spent several years working for the naval aircraft refit facility in their machine shop, up to my retirement in 1989 from civil service. Meanwhile, my health gradually deteriorated until climbing a flight of stairs was laborious. I was diagnosed with asbestosis and had a small section of my lungs removed because of suspicious spots. I want everyone to be an advocate for their own health and to get a diagnosis as early as they can.

A veteran exposed to asbestos while on duty can establish a service connection for sleep apnea on a secondary basis

Because sleep apnea presents symptoms that are similar to those of asbestosis, such as trouble breathing and tightness in the chest, it is not uncommon for asbestosis to be misdiagnosed as sleep apnea. Not only will a false diagnosis affect your prognosis, but it will also hinder your chances of recovering the amount of financial compensation you are truly eligible for.

It should be noted that sleep apnea is not recognized as primarily caused by asbestos. It is possible to get sleep apnea connected as a secondary condition if an acknowledged diagnosis is service-connected and a pulmonary doctor makes a medical nexus between the already service-connected condition and sleep apnea.

For example, if entitlement to service connection for asbestosis is granted, and the pulmonologist believes the veteran's sleep apnea may be caused or worsened by the compromised lung function, then the VA may grant disability compensation for a secondary-service condition.

Asbestosis is a lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers which cause irreversible lung scarring. This reduces the capacity of the lungs to function properly causing chest pain, worsening breathing problems, and greater levels of fatigue. As the disease progresses, the symptoms worsen. After a while, a person may require supplemental oxygen to carry out daily activities. The end result of the disease is lung and heart failure.

If you have a history of exposure to asbestos and you are experiencing increasing shortness of breath, insomnia, abrupt awakenings accompanied by gasping or choking, morning headache, you should visit your GP and explain your concerns and seek a referral to a pulmonologist with specialized knowledge in the diagnosis and treatment of asbestos-related lung diseases.

If you suffer due to asbestos exposure we are here to help you recover the compensation you deserve

If you have a history of asbestos exposure and you experience symptoms like wheezing, shortness of breath, or sudden awakenings with a sensation of gasping or choking, we strongly encourage you to give us a call and we will thoroughly review your particular case, and make sure that we are pursuing all of the compensation that is available to you. After preparing your case, our team of experts will be there to assist you with all stages of your claim. Our experts have the skills, experience, and resources available to help you recover maximum compensation for victims and their loved ones.