Sleep Apnea and AFib: The Critical Connection

Man sitting on bed in pajamas, head in hand

Sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder, shares a strong link with atrial fibrillation (AFib)

AFib is an irregular heartbeat, often described as feeling like a “fluttering” of the heart, which can lead to stroke and other heart-related complications. Sleep apnea is a condition where repetitive airway obstruction causes a lack of oxygen periodically throughout the night that can have serious health consequences, according to Les Szekely, MD, of the Doylestown Health Sleep Center and Bucks County Medical Associates.

Dr. Szekely explains that sleep apnea (defined as an involuntary interruption of the normal breathing cycle) is a very common disorder, with eight percent of men and four percent of women estimated to have this disorder in the United States. While sleep apnea is more common among the obese population, up to 20 percent of people with sleep apnea are not obese.

The person with sleep apnea usually doesn’t know that they have the condition, nor does their bed partner always witness the apneas, says Dr. Szekely. As a result, a person with undetected and untreated sleep apnea can go years (even decades!) experiencing the damaging effects of repetitive oxygen deprivation—as well as the micro adrenaline bursts the body produces to open up the airways. These patients experience disrupted sleep and lack continuous, deep, quality, refreshing sleep, and as a result, do not feel refreshed in the morning and are generally fatigued during the daytime.

Consequences of Sleep Apnea on Other Organ Systems

Over time, the potential health consequences of untreated sleep apnea go beyond feeling sleepy and include:

Snoring, which may be a precursor to sleep apnea, does not have health consequences that physicians are currently aware of, according to Dr. Szekely. It is however often a precursor to obstructive sleep apnea and should be discussed with a physician.

The Relationship between AFib and Sleep Apnea

AFib and sleep apnea share many risk factors, likely due to increases in cardiovascular disease and obesity in the population, including high blood pressure and diabetes. According to Dr. Szekely, cardiologists are keenly aware that 50 to 82 percent of AFib patients have undiagnosed sleep apnea. That is why cardiologists and other healthcare professionals, including ophthalmologists, dentists and primary care providers, screen patients for a sleep disorder. You can screen yourself for sleep apnea using this simple assessment tool:


Do You Suspect That You Suffer From Sleep Apnea? We Can Help!

With 88 different sleep disorders currently identified, Dr. Szekely recommends that people seek professional help if a sleep disorder is suspected. Some may need a diagnostic study called a sleep study or polysomnogram to identify a specific sleep disorder. Fifty percent of sleep studies are conducted in the privacy of one’s own home using home study equipment that is easy to administer and send back for analysis. Studies done in the sleep center are fully COVID-19 safety compliant, including single-person rooms, mask-wearing, enhanced cleaning and ventilation.

For sleep disorder consultation and patient evaluation, call 215.348.1310. For sleep study information, call 800.298.3171.

About Doylestown Health

Doylestown Health is a comprehensive healthcare system of inpatient, outpatient and wellness education services connected to meet the health needs of all members of the local and regional community. Doylestown Hospital, the flagship to Doylestown Health has 271 beds and a Medical Staff of more than 435 physicians in over 50 specialties. An independent nonprofit health system, Doylestown Health is dedicated to providing innovative, patient-centered care for all ages.

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