During atrial fibrillation (AFib), the heart’s upper chambers beat irregularly and out of sync with its lower chambers. This results in an abnormal, rapid heartbeat of 100 to 175 beats per minute, according to Mayo Clinic. The Heart Rhythm Society reports that approximately half of those who have atrial fibrillation also have sleep apnea—a sleep disorder that causes disrupted breathing and oxygen deprivation during sleep. Read on for 3 key facts about the links between atrial fibrillation and sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea can increase the risk of developing atrial fibrillation.
The Heart Rhythm Society reports that some common risk factors for atrial fibrillation include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
The Society also reports that sleep apnea is a lesser-known cause of atrial fibrillation that isn't completely understood. However, it is a fact that those who have sleep apnea have four times the risk of developing atrial fibrillation. The possible reasons for this include:
- In the absence of treatment, sleep apnea can lead to the development of atrial fibrillation risk factors such as hypertension and diabetes.
- Sleep apnea is a direct trigger of arrhythmias, or irregularities in heart rhythm, during sleep.
- The stresses and chemical changes that happen in the body as a result of sleep apnea-related oxygen deprivation may subsequently lead to the development of atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation may also cause sleep apnea.
According to a 2017 article published by Frontiers in Neurology, the relationship between obstructive sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation is likely bidirectional, meaning that the two conditions can cause each other.
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of the sleep apnea, and it’s caused by the abnormal relaxation of muscles in the upper airway, which blocks and interrupts proper breathing during sleep. The condition has been shown to be an independent risk factor for stroke, and it also may increase the risk of developing atrial fibrillation.
The nervous system can offer insights about both atrial fibrillation and sleep apnea.
“The sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is stimulated with sleep apnea. An increased sympathetic drive is associated with atrial fibrillation,” Leann Poston, M.D., medical communications writer at Invigor Health, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
The sympathetic nervous system is a part of the autonomic nervous system, which controls how the body’s organs and glands function.
A 2014 Circulation Research article notes that the activation of the autonomic nervous system can create significant changes in the electrical activity of the heart and induce irregular heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation.
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