The Connection Between Sleep Apnea and Atrial Fibrillation

If you or a family member have sleep apnea, you might have more to worry about than just your sleep. Sleep apnea, also known as obstructive sleep apnea,  puts a serious strain on the heart, so suffering from this sleep disorder means worrying about your heart’s health, too. This not only impacts your health but your everyday life as well. 

Recent research has discovered a strong association between sleep apnea and a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation.  Obviously, both sleep and heart disorders are serious concerns, but the connection between these two conditions make proper treatment even more important.

This post will discuss what these two conditions are, what the link between them is, and what you should do to make sure you maintain good sleep and heart health. 

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What is Sleep Apnea? 

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes disrupted breathing. Throughout a period of sleep, breathing will stop and start again. The disorder is more commonly found in men, but women can be affected by it as well.

Loud snoring and chronic fatigue are common symptoms of sleep apnea. Most often, sleep apnea is diagnosed through a sleep study. Advanced Sleep Centers of Virginia offers at-home sleep tests for your convenience. 

There are a few types of sleep apnea, but the type most closely associated with atrial fibrillation is known as obstructive sleep apnea. This is caused by soft tissue in the throat collapsing and blocking the airway during sleep.

Central sleep apnea, which is a decrease in the respiratory effort during sleep, has also been linked to atrial fibrillation.

Research shows that nearly 30 million American adults suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, but it is estimated that 85% of cases go undiagnosed. Leaving this disorder untreated for extended periods of time can lead to serious conditions like hypertension or diabetes and predispose a person to atrial fibrillation.

Additionally, whenever a person awakens from a lack of oxygen, the heart experiences stress and chemical changes that can promote atrial fibrillation development. 

What is Atrial Fibrillation? 

Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib or AF, is the most common type of cardiac arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat

Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib or AF, is the most common type of cardiac arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat. Usually, your heart beats at a regular pace. In AFib, though, the upper chambers of the heart, or the atria, beat irregularly and struggle to move blood into the ventricles. 

AFib can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart attacks, and more. It also shares many risk factors with sleep apnea. 

You may have Afib and not know it
You may have Afib and not know it

AFib affects over 6 million American hearts. AFib has a wide range of causes varying from age to weight, but many wonder: is sleep apnea and AFib connected? In fact, a strong association between sleep apnea and AFib has been revealed through different studies and research.  

What’s the Connection? 

Sleep apnea causes increased stress on the heart and its functions. This stress can enlarge the left atrium of the heart, which is the primary source of AFib. This enlargement disrupts electrical signals from the brain to the heart and contributes to AFib development. 

Studies show that people with sleep apnea are two to four times more likely to have AFib and it is estimated that about half of AFib patients also have sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea has been shown to contribute to symptoms of AFib. In one study, AFib was found to be linearly related to the severity of sleep apnea. For instance, those who had less than 15 hypopnea events per hour during sleep were two times more at risk of developing AFib. More than 15 hypopnea events per hour showed a five-fold increase in AFib odds. 

Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib or AF, is the most common type of cardiac arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat
Intersection of Sleep Apnea and Atrial Fibrillation

A diagnosis of central sleep apnea involves at least 50% of hypopneas being related to a reduced or absent respiratory drive. Research shows that people with AFib are four times more likely to develop central sleep apnea in particular.

Most often, though, central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea coexist, so the three are usually connected. Even without underlying heart dysfunctions, studies have continuously shown a connection between AFib and sleep apnea; people with central sleep apnea already have a doubled risk of developing AFib. 

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So They’re Connected… But Why?

It is still unclear whether or not one of the disorders specifically causes the other. This is because the two conditions share many of the same risk factors. Either way, the association exists, at the very least through the common risk factors. 

For instance, obesity is a common factor for both sleep apnea and AFib. Whether the link between the two is due to the obesity itself or the effects weight gain has on the heart, inflammatory responses, blood pressure, and so on is still being determined, though. 

More common risk factors that promote the connection between the two include: 

  • Narrow airway
  • Chronic congestion
  • Old age (60+)
  • High blood pressure
  • Tobacco or alcohol use
  • Gender (more common in men)
  • Genetics 

Can Treating Sleep Apnea Help AFib? 

“Research shows treating your sleep apnea improves AFib by 42% AND can decrease the risk of developing AFib”


Thankfully, these disorders don’t have to control your life. In treating your sleep apnea, research shows that it improves AFib by 42% and can decrease the risk of developing AFib in the first place. Furthermore, treating sleep apnea and AFib together increases success rates in procedures like cardioversions and ablations.

According to this journal, patients with untreated sleep apnea who undergo these types of procedures, like pulmonary vein isolation, show a significant increase in procedural failures. 

Treatment for AFib is usually a catheter ablation, a minimally invasive procedure in which a catheter is threaded through blood vessels into the left atrium of the heart. Radiofrequency or cryo energy is then applied to the muscle to cauterize the short circuits in the heart’s electrical system that generates the AFib. 

It is recommended that the treatment of AFib, if it is diagnosed, and sleep apnea are done together. According to various studies, treating AFib through catheter ablation is most effective if sleep apnea is being treated. Otherwise, the recurrence risk of AFib is much higher. 

It is crucial that AFib patients be checked for sleep apnea and, if diagnosed, create a treatment plan for both conditions. 

Treating Sleep Apnea

SomnoMed intraoral Appliances

In the past, CPAP therapy has been the go-to treatment for sleep apnea disorders, but in recent years, many risks and issues associated with CPAP treatment have been discovered. You can read more about the issues of a CPAP machine here. 

A newer, safer, non-invasive treatment known as oral appliance therapy has been found as an effective treatment option for sleep apnea. This involves wearing an intraoral appliance, similar to a sports mouth guard, at night during sleep. The appliance positions the lower jaw forward and holds the tongue in place to keep your airway open and prevent blockage. 

Advanced Sleep Solutions of Virginia can help you get an oral appliance that will fit you best and help you to get a better night’s sleep, stress-free. 

Don’t Let Sleep Apnea or AFib Control Your Life

If you are concerned about or suffer from either of these conditions, it’s best to get a handle on it now. Why live a life of exhaustion when help is one call away? Treating these conditions will reduce your risk of additional health struggles and allow for better quality sleep that improves your quality of life. 

Our team of highly trained sleep specialists here at Advanced Sleep Solutions of Virginia are here to help you and are dedicated to your sleep health. This is why our team is trained specifically to help you get the treatment you need to live a better life. We make the process convenient and simple, with at-home sleep tests, online scheduling, and secure telemedicine portals for easy communication with our team of professionals. 

Are you interested in an oral appliance for your sleep apnea or worried your sleep apnea might be causing other issues? No worries! We’re here to get you the best night’s sleep in the safest, most comfortable way possible. Schedule an appointment with us online or call us today at (703) 689-2480 for a free consultation. 

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