It’s no secret that playing in the NFL comes with a hefty arsenal of health risks. We’ve heard about the effects of concussions, brain injury, and spinal trauma that follow players long after their careers have ended. We’ve read about them enduring years of joint pain and complications from orthopedic injuries. But there is another major health risk plaguing these professional athletes, and it’s rarely mentioned.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is shockingly common amongst NFL players. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, 1/3 of NFL players have sleep apnea, a rate five times higher than non-players in the same age bracket. (ASMS) OSA is a serious disorder, causing the patient to stop breathing momentarily during sleep. It’s not uncommon for a sleep apnea sufferer to endure hundreds of apnea episodes per night. The brain must continuously wake the body enough to resume breathing, which prevents full, restorative sleep from occurring. OSA is linked to high-blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and dozens of other health complications. For a normal person, it can be devastating and destructive. For an athlete, whose heart is already under strain through their increased activity level, it is especially dangerous.

Many can recall the tragic death of defensive end Reggie White at age 43. His death was caused by a heart attack, compounded by complications from sleep apnea. Former quarterback JaMarcus Russell is also known for his battle with sleep apnea and its negative effect on his career. Aaron Taylor, Derek Kennard, Warren Sapp, Rolf Benirschke, Tony Dorsett, Roy Green, Dave Krieg, Percy Harvin, and dozens of other players and ex-players have spoken out publicly regarding their own experiences with sleep apnea, including our own spokesperson, former Bronco Brandon Stokley.

This trend isn’t exclusive to the NFL, either. Many pro basketball players have become advocates for sleep apnea awareness after being diagnosed themselves. Shaquille O’Neal worked with Harvard Medical School to create the video “Shaq Attacks Sleep Apnea” in order to shine a light on this all-too-common disorder after his own experience being diagnosed with OSA. (click here to watch it)

One of the most upsetting stats concerns retired players suffering from sleep apnea, and complications of it, long after they’ve left the game. “According to the American College of Cardiology, a study of 167 retired football players discovered that a staggering sixty percent of them averaged a little more than 18 episodes of disordered sleep each sleeping hour.” (

The silver lining is that many players with sleep apnea have become passionate advocates for OSA awareness, openly sharing the benefits they received from treatment. In an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Aaron Taylor says “I call it the silent killer. I was dying. I was dying slowly. It’s not snoring. Snoring is an indicator. It’s when you stop breathing that the problem occurs.” (click here to read the article)

Hopefully, as more and more athletes share their experiences with sleep apnea, new up-and-coming players will have a better chance of diagnosing and treating sleep apnea early-on. If you have any of the symptoms associated with sleep apnea, you should get tested as soon as possible. Click here to find a provider near you!