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Shift-work disorders: When working variable shifts impacts a good night's sleep

HORSEHEADS, N.Y. (18 NEWS) - For some, getting a good night's rest can be hard, especially when someone's work hours can fluctuate between night and day. It's known as shift work disorder. 

Nicole Wright and Captain Rick Skebey are volunteer firefighters at the Horseheads Fire Department, always on call to respond to emergencies.

"Some of of us here put in significant amount of hours, 30 or 40 hours a week, give or take on a slow week," Skebey said. "Everybody here works full-time jobs."

Of course emergencies don't have set schedules, like people do, and being a firefighter isn't the only thing these guys do.

"We have other commitments such as hours of training we put into the fire service," Wright said. "We have our families and our separate careers in addition to the volunteer fire service."

During the day, Wright goes to school and is an EMT. She's also a nurse, sometimes working nights. Skebey works at a 911 call center.

When answering overnight emergencies, it does have an impact.

"It impacts our sleep schedule so if we work all day the next day and we're up all night at a call," Wright said. "That impacts how much you can sleep for the rest of your day."
 
"You do get used to it, however multiple times, especially during the week, you start to feel the effects," Skebey said. " You get tired, you get a little cranky."

Neurologist Lonnie Stethers said those are just some of the symptoms of Shift-Work Disorders.

"It causes people to be chronically sleep deprived, which is a very dangerous condition," Stethers said. "They never catch up on their sleep, they have what's called a sleep debt."

Affecting someone's ability to work or just about anything they do.

"It certainly impacts their safety," Stethers said. "If they're too sleepy they may have difficulty staying awake while they're driving, they may have difficulty staying awake while they're operating dangerous machinery."

According to the Center for Disease Control, out of 6,338 adults about 38 percent reported short sleep durations, but only two thirds from that category said they work overnight.

The National Sleep Foundation says some reasons people do shift-work is because it's the "nature of the job," "personal preference," or it's the "only option available."

So how can practitioners determine if you suffer from shift-work disorders?

"We'd like to rule a condition called sleep apnea because that is one of the big, leading causes of excessive sleepiness and if it appears that maybe a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea is impacting their life, we'll order a sleep study," Stethers said. "If we do a sleep study and find that is unremarkable then we can proceed further. Some people with these symptoms can have narcolepsy which I think used to be call a sleeping-sickness. They will fall at the drop of a hat."
 
Doctors can then prescribe stimulants such as modafinal or armodafinol. When sleep is needed, there's no better alternative.

The Horseheads  firefighters can sleep even during an alarm if they need it. No matter how tired they may get, it doesn't make them think twice about being firefighters.

"You do it because you enjoy doing this," Skebey said.  "I'm not going to stop not going to calls, coming here, going to work and we all love it here. That's why we're here."

"The best thing I ever did was join the fire department so it would not stop me, Wright said. "It's a great thing and a great feeling even if when you are tired that you helped somebody."


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