Heart problems are among the most serious complications linked to sleep apnea. Cardiovascular problems, such as heart failure and stroke, account for most medical expenses, hospitalizations, and deaths linked to sleep apnea. Often, sleep apnea contributes significantly to the disease progression. So significantly that sleep apnea treatment is a critical part of treating your heart problems. 

This is the case with atrial fibrillation, commonly called afib. About half of all people with atrial fibrillation have sleep apnea. Treating sleep apnea will greatly increase your odds of recovery from atrial fibrillation. 

Hands in the shape of a heart are held up while a person relaxes in bed

The Link between Sleep Apnea and Atrial Fibrillation

You need to breathe, so interruptions in breathing trigger dramatic effects throughout the body, but the organ impacted the most is probably your heart. When the body senses oxygen shortage and/or elevated carbon dioxide levels, it tells your heart to beat faster and harder. Over time, the repeated stimulation of the heart encourages some parts of the heart to grow larger. The heart also changes in response to the physical effects of trying to breathe with a collapsed airway. These heart changes make you more likely to develop heart problems like afib.

In addition, there are chemical and hormonal effects of oxygen shortage that disrupt your heart’s normal function. Together, these impacts make you more likely to develop afib if you have sleep apnea. 

About half of all people with afib also have sleep apnea. 

Treating Sleep Apnea Helps Atrial Fibrillation

There are several common treatments used for afib. One is electric cardioversion, where your doctor uses a series of electrical shocks to reset your heart’s rhythm. Your doctor can also use medications to help you control your heart rhythms.  If this isn’t effective, your doctor might recommend “ablation” or burning away of heart tissues that are causing the irregular heartbeat. This can be done with a catheter that can deliver radiofrequency waves or lasers to specifically target problematic tissues. If this fails, you might be given a pacemaker. 

If you want to recover from afib, you want to reduce the stresses on the heart that contributed to the condition in the first place. As long as sleep apnea continues stressing your heart, you are more likely to experience a recurrence of afib. For example, with catheter ablation, only 37% of people with untreated sleep apnea were afib-free after one year. With treatment, 72% of people were afib-free after a year. 

The impact of sleep apnea is similar for other forms of afib treatment. No matter the treatment your doctor recommends, you can cut your risk of afib recurrence by about half if you also treat sleep apnea

What Type of Sleep Apnea Treatment Is Best?

Just as there are several treatments for afib, there are treatment options for sleep apnea. In the end, the best sleep apnea treatment is the one that will be effective for you. While many doctors recommend it first, CPAP fails many heart patients. If you can’t or won’t use CPAP, you still have untreated sleep apnea. 

For people who don’t want or can’t tolerate CPAP, oral appliance therapy is the best option. 

If you would like to learn more about screening for sleep apnea or finding the best treatment option to help treat atrial fibrillation, please call (402) 493-4175 today for an appointment with an Omaha sleep dentist at the Advanced Dental Sleep Treatment Center.