Treating Sleep Apnea May Help AFib Patients

Medically Reviewed

Getting sleep apnea under control can help prevent recurrent episodes of atrial fibrillation, a research review suggests.

Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which the airways constrict during sleep, causing repeated stops and starts in breathing. Chronic loud snoring (often interspersed with gasps or choking) is the hallmark symptom. Those pauses in breathing stress the nervous system, which can boost blood pressure and inflammation in the arteries—and raise a person’s risk of developing atrial fibrillation or having frequent recurrences.

Evidence is growing, however, that treating sleep apnea with continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, can lessen the risk. The therapy involves wearing a mask that delivers mild air pressure to keep the airways open during sleep.

The review, published in JACC Clinical Electrophysiology in March 2015, analyzed seven studies that followed more than 1,000 patients with both sleep apnea and recurrent atrial fibrillation. Overall, CPAP reduced atrial fibrillation episodes by 42 percent. And it benefited patients regardless of whether their atrial fibrillation was managed with medication or a catheter ablation procedure.

The downside is that none of the studies was a controlled clinical trial, which offers the best proof of a treatment’s benefits. However, it’s clear that treating sleep apnea is important in its own right. If you (or your bedmate) think you have symptoms, ask your doctor for an evaluation.