One of the more common late-developing disabilities that Veterans suffer from is obstructive sleep apnea. An estimated 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, making the condition far from unique to the Veteran population. Many Veterans develop sleep apnea long after they have finished their time in the military.
For many Veterans, sleep apnea is a condition that can have a significant adverse effect on their quality of life. People with sleep apnea may find that it is extremely difficult to get a good night’s rest due to breathing problems while sleeping. Many people who have the condition require special apparatus to help them breathe comfortably through the night.
If a Veteran can confirm to the VA that their disability is directly linked to their military service, they can be eligible to receive disability benefits from the VA. These monthly tax-free benefits can be extremely valuable in many cases, providing financial stability to Veterans who are significantly affected by their disabilities.
To be service-connected for this condition, a Veteran must show that the condition is related to service. Another way of looking at the requirement is to ask, “Would I have this disability now if I had not been in the military?” That is what you need to prove to get service connected for obstructive sleep apnea.
Consider this – If 22 million Americans have sleep apnea, and if many Veterans suffer from the condition, how does this disability get service connected? Since sleep apnea is such a common sleep disorder, it can be difficult to trace its development back to a specific disability that a Veteran developed as a result of their military service. However, without this connection, a Veteran with sleep apnea cannot qualify for disability benefits.
The answer: There must be medical proof or a diagnosis documented in the Veteran’s service treatment records (STRs), or a medical opinion from a doctor that links the Veteran’s sleep apnea to their military service OR another service-connected disability. If you can establish that your sleep apnea developed due to a service-related disability, the VA may recognize your sleep apnea as a secondary condition. Secondary conditions can increase your disability rating, leading to higher benefits from the VA each month.
If you can establish that your sleep apnea is directly linked to a service-related disability, you have a strong case to make that the VA should approve you for benefits. Although your sleep apnea may not have developed during your time in the military, establishing that it is a secondary condition can still positively affect your disability rating.
Most Veterans do not have documented treatment or diagnosis of sleep apnea while in service. This is generally because most Veterans do not seek medical help when they feel tired or have a terrible night’s sleep.
The implied rule taught to soldiers after boot camp is to push through tiredness to complete their mission. The attitude towards fatigue, exhaustion, and even sleep disorders in the military can be relatively dismissive.
For this reason, many Veterans are not able to verify that they developed a sleep disorder like sleep apnea during their time in the military. However, the lack of a direct connection between sleep apnea and military service does not rule out the possibility of qualifying for disability benefits. Many Veterans develop sleep apnea alongside other conditions that are easier to link to their time in the military.
Many Gulf War Veterans exhibit symptoms of what the VA has described as a “chronic multi-symptom illness,” which is often known as Gulf War Syndrome. Respiratory disorders, including sleep apnea, are included in the long list of symptoms linked to Gulf War Symptoms.
The VA will presume a connection between your disability and your military service if you are a Gulf War Veteran who exhibits Gulf War Syndrome symptoms, including sleep apnea. In most cases, the VA requires that you provide evidence that there is a connection between a disability and your military service. Still, Gulf War Syndrome and its symptoms are among the few exceptions to this rule.
If you served in the Gulf War and have sleep apnea, the VA will most likely view your sleep apnea as having a presumed connection to your military service.
One of the most difficult aspects of filing a disability claim for sleep apnea is providing the VA with medical confirmation – a diagnosis. If you have not been professionally diagnosed with sleep apnea, the VA will deny your claim based on inconclusive medical evidence.
The denial of disability claims for unconfirmed, undiagnosed sleep apnea is a regular occurrence for the VA. The Department denies these claims because they do not have sufficient evidence to conclusively say that a Veteran is suffering from sleep apnea without a diagnosis, even if the Veteran exhibits the symptoms of the disorder.
Most Veterans will try to say that they have proof that they snored excessively in service and can get buddy statements to support their claim to confirm that they are suffering from sleep apnea. However, while snoring is a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea, it is proof of an in-service diagnosis. Many people snore and do not have sleep apnea, making it difficult to verify the connection between sleep apnea and this symptom.
The connection between symptoms, a diagnosis, and military service must be made with a medical opinion and confirmed with a sleep study.
Once a Veteran has a sleep study that confirms obstructive sleep apnea, the next step is to get a medical get a medical opinion that links the diagnosed condition to the Veteran’s military service. This is oftentimes called a “nexus opinion.”
Without a diagnosis or treatment in service, a direct service connection can be difficult. This is why the VA denies a large number of sleep apnea claims. The Veteran will claim sleep apnea; then the VA will review the Veteran’s STR and not see any treatment or diagnosis in service and deny the claim.
As mentioned above, obstructive sleep apnea most often occurs after service and is likely due to another disability. That means Veterans can often get service connected for obstructive sleep apnea on a secondary basis.
For example, stress is known to be a cause of sleep apnea. Therefore, a claim for sleep apnea secondary to PTSD is more commonly granted. Sleep apnea could also be granted secondary to musculoskeletal disabilities, radiculopathy, diabetes, etc. No matter what condition the Veteran claims to have caused the sleep apnea, a medical opinion from a doctor will be needed to support that claim.
Sleep apnea is far from the only sleep problem that many Veterans struggle with. Below are several other common sleep disorders that affect many Veterans. These conditions can qualify you to receive disability benefits from the VA if a connection can be established between your military service and your disability.
Any of these sleep disorders can qualify a Veteran to receive disability benefits from the VA. When filing a disability claim for any sleep disorder, the key is establishing a verifiable connection between your condition and your military service.
In some cases, yes. Snoring is widely regarded as one of the key symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. As a result, it is a compensable claim under the Code of Federal Regulations. Alongside snoring, common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea or OSA include:
However, for you to get disability benefits for your snoring being a symptom of OSA, you must prove that your snoring developed because of OSA and was not a pre-existing condition beforehand.
For example, if you take sleep medication in order to treat another service-connected condition, and the sleep medication aggravates or causes your OSA, you could have a case for secondary service connection. Secondary condition claims or secondary service connections are very common when treating mental health conditions like PTSD.
On the downside, some people develop OSA naturally as they get older. Therefore, without a clear and present link, like medication, it could be difficult to connect your snoring or sleep apnea to your military service.
That said, there has been some research linking depression, weight gain, and OSA. Specifically, some studies have indicated that depression often induces weight gain and obesity as well, even those who don’t use medication. Obesity is also known as a risk factor for developing obstructive sleep apnea due to the way weight is distributed throughout the body.
Obesity is further associated with the functional impairment in weakening of your upper airway muscles. Again, this increases the likelihood of OSA and other forms of obstructed breathing.
What does this mean for you? If you can prove that you’ve experienced weight gain because of service-connected mental health problems, and you have OSA symptoms, you could qualify for a secondary service connection for OSA, snoring, and similar symptoms. Note that this is also true for Veterans who may experience weight gain for other reasons, such as service-connected diabetes mellitus.
It’s important to try to connect your obstructive sleep apnea to your military service because it may result in a major disability ratings bump.
If you are diagnosed and can link your OSA back to your service, either directly or through a secondary basis, you may receive a 50% disability rating just for your OSA. This is especially true if you have been prescribed a CPAP machine: a common treatment for severe obstructive sleep apnea.
Remember, your disability ratings are added together. With the 50% claim, you could reach another tier or benchmark of disability benefits, further securing your financial status and your peace of mind.
If you have been denied disability compensation for obstructive sleep apnea and think it’s because of your service, you should contact our office to review your case. If there is a strong enough link between your sleep apnea and your military service, we can help you appeal your claim and make a convincing case to the VA that you should qualify to receive benefits.
If the VA has already denied your disability claim for sleep apnea, it doesn’t have to be the end of your efforts to obtain the compensation that you deserve. You can appeal any VA decision, including denial of a claim, with the help of a skilled attorney. Berry Law’s dedicated team of lawyers are ready and able to fight alongside you. We can help you get the disability benefits that you need and deserve from the VA.
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