Healthy Living

Can Sleep Apnea Cause an Irregular Heartbeat?

Can Sleep Apnea Cause an Irregular Heartbeat?

There are numerous people who complain about waking up with a fast-beating heart. While some think this isn’t anything to worry about, there are studies that link waking up with an irregular heartbeat to sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a very common sleeping disorder that is very alarming. In fact, a report by the National Sleep Foundation said that there are over 18 million adults in America that are diagnosed with this condition. Also, that it can be found in all age groups and for both sexes. The report also shows that a minimum of 3% of children are suspected of having sleep apnea and even up to 20% of children who snore have a higher chance of getting the condition.

What is sleep apnea and how to identify it?

The scariest part of sleep apnea is that it is very hard to spot or identify. When one has sleep apnea, he or she will experience not being able to breathe or have shallow breathing while asleep. Sleep apnea is quite terrifying because the lapses in breathing may last from several seconds to even a few minutes, which can really disturb someone sleeping. In fact, these lapses may happen more than 20 to even up to 30 times during an hour. People who have this condition will notice that they have lapses when they start getting deeper into their sleep.

Since sleep apnea only happens when one is asleep, it is often very hard to identify. Even doctors have a hard time identifying this condition, unless they put the patient under strict observation while the patient is sleeping. Even if it may be quite difficult to determine whether or not one has this condition, there are several symptoms that can be used as signs of having this illness. These include:

  • Snoring very loudly (this is usually noticed by someone else).
  • Waking up with shortness of breath.
  • Waking up with a sore throat.
  • Having a headache upon waking.
  • Suffering from insomnia.
  • Having frequent episodes of breathing difficulty and waking up several times every night.
  • Suffering from tiredness or frequent fatigue during the daytime.
  • Choking during sleeping time.

While some of these symptoms may seem not very serious (such as snoring loudly or waking up with a sore throat), it pays for one to already take some action if he or she is experiencing any of these signs. Long-term conditions that may stem from sleep apnea are high blood pressure, obesity, heart failure, and diabetes.

What is the connection between sleep apnea and irregular heartbeats?

As mentioned earlier, there are some studies that may link sleep apnea and the episodes of irregular or faster heart rates. Sleep apnea could also be connected to a heart disease known as atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation is a type of heart disease that prompts the heart to beat faster at any time of day. According to a report made by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there is an estimated 6.1 million people in the United States alone that are suffering from atrial fibrillation with 2% of people younger than 65 and 9% of people 65 years old and above. 

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Severe palpitations coupled with abnormal heartbeat.
  • Frequent feelings of weakness or fatigue.
  • Frequent instances of dizziness at any time of the day.
  • Severe shortness of breath.
  • Some instances of chest pains.

There are four types of atrial fibrillation that one may experience. These are:

  • Occasional type: This is also known as paroxysmal atrial fibrillation and induces abnormal heartbeats that may last from a few minutes to even a few hours. The irregular heartbeats do eventually stop.
  • Persistent type: This type of atrial fibrillation has longer irregular heartbeats that may not normalize without medical treatment.
  • Long Standing Persistent type: This type may last up to 12 months.
  • Permanent type: The last one is the most dangerous. This type has an abnormal heart rate that cannot be regularized without long-term medication. Patients who suffer from this type need to take regular medication to control the heart rate.

After knowing more about the condition and how serious it can be, the big question is how exactly this deadly disease is connected to sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea, specifically obstructive sleep apnea, relaxes the throat muscles, rendering it incapable of moving during sleep. This blocks the airway of the throat, which causes shortness of breath and palpitations. During an episode, one will feel like he or she cannot breathe. When one stops breathing, then his or her body's oxygen levels in the blood will decrease. This then makes the respiratory system have a hard time functioning. It would lead to their blood pressure rising and their heart rate becoming faster as a result. This is also the body's way of telling one to wake up so that he or she can breathe. During each lapse, the heart is heavily affected because of the stress it has to endure when the patient's blood pressure shoots up.

The evidence of the link between the two illnesses

According to a study titled, Sleep Apnea Increases the Risk of New Onset Atrial Fibrillation: A Clinical Cohort Study, by researcher Tetyana Kendzerska and a team of researchers from the University of Ottawa in Canada, there is evidence that shows a link between the two illnesses.

The study rationalizes the relationship between sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation through testing of a total of 8,256 subjects. The median age of the subjects is 47 years of age with 62% males with the rest females. The subjects who are free of arrhythmias were monitored for any connection between obstructive sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation based on risk factors involving age, sex, alcohol consumption, smoking habits, congestive heart failure history, and pulmonary diseases.

The research resulted in a final conclusion that sleep time with oxygen depletion was evident in 90% of the population and a factor of atrial fibrillation in the next ten years. This result suggests that there indeed is a relationship between obstructive sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation.


With the evidence pointing out the causal relationship between the two conditions, we can infer that there is quite a high probability that sleep apnea may be a cause or may eventually lead to having a heart disease such as atrial fibrillation. While it can be seen that there is a logical connection between them, the symptoms of sleep apnea put a lot of pressure on the respiratory system, specifically the heart, making the heart beat abnormally fast as compared to normal. With this in mind, it is very important to be diligent in checking for the possibility of atrial fibrillation if one has sleep apnea. Doing so can prevent one from developing the deadly heart disease and also avoid having other conditions that are irreversible.