Atrial fibrillation is when your heart isn’t beating in the proper sequence to efficiently pump blood through your body. Basically, the two upper chambers of the heart, the atria, pump very erratically and quickly, which means that blood begins to pool in the heart, and not enough is being distributed to the body as a whole.
Studies show that people with sleep apnea are 2-6 times more likely to develop atrial fibrillation. Sleep apnea also contributes to more severe forms of atrial fibrillation, including recurring atrial fibrillation, atrial fibrillation that resists treatment, and atrial fibrillation that leads to heart failure.
How Can You Identify Atrial Fibrillation?
Unfortunately, as with sleep apnea, although atrial fibrillation is very common, there’s not a good way to tell who has it. Atrial fibrillation may have no discernible symptoms, and when it does the symptoms are very nonspecific, and may include:
- Discomfort in your chest that feels like irregular heart motions
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Atrial fibrillation can occur in occasional attacks, or it can continue indefinitely. Sometimes, treatment from a doctor can help restore your heart to its proper rhythm, but other times, your heart remains in fibrillation and requires medication to help control the irregular heartbeat.
Untreated atrial fibrillation can lead to heart failure and stroke, so it’s important to talk to your doctor if you suspect you might have atrial fibrillation.
How Sleep Apnea Can Lead to Atrial Fibrillation
There are several potential mechanisms that can link sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation, though we’re unclear about the exact connection. First, some suspect that the changes in pressure in the chest cavity due to the stoppage of breath might interfere with the function of the atria. This pressure has been shown to reshape a critical heart structure linked to atrial fibrillation.
Another potential cause of atrial fibrillation is changes in the autonomic nervous system. This involuntary nervous system controls many of the functions of your internal organs. Sleep apnea damages this nervous system, making it less responsive and effective in controlling your body.
High blood pressure may also be responsible for reshaping your heart from within.
Apneic episodes cause the release of inflammation-inducing proteins, which can affect your heart as they do others tissues in the body.
Sleep Apnea Treatment Reduces Atrial Fibrillation Risks
The good news is that even after you’ve developed atrial fibrillation, treating sleep apnea can reduce your risks of heart failure, stroke, and worsening fibrillation.