Atrial fibrillation and sleep disorders

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Around 50 percent of those who have atrial fibrillation (AFib) also have sleep apnea. AFib is a condition where the heart beat is very abnormal; sleep apnea is a condition where breathing becomes very shallow or completely stopped during sleep. In the US, about 2.5 million people have AFib while about 18 million have sleep apnea. About 90 percent of those with sleep apnea are currently undiagnosed.

Abnormal electrical signals cause AFib — chambers in the heart do not contract properly to pump blood out of the heart. Instead, they just quiver and allow blood to remain in the heart. This can cause a blood clot to form, break loose, and cause a stroke. The risk of stroke is five times greater in patients with AFib than in patients who do not have AFib.

Sleep apnea patients have an airflow that is either completely or partially blocked during sleep, causing the patient to wake up when the brain detects that there is too little oxygen in the blood. The brain does this by monitoring the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood. When the patient wakes up, it may not be a complete awakening — it may be only partial but may be enough to reopen the airway. This can and does occur several hundred times each night in many sleep apnea patients, but they are usually not aware that they are being awakened. They usually snore, but only know about this if others inform them. This is dangerous because many people do not have a bed partner to tell them they snore, or the bed partner has just gotten used to the noise and isn’t aware. Sleep apnea patients often awake gasping for air or choking. Untreated sleep apnea can result in the increased risk of many dangerous medical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and AFib.

Many studies have been done regarding AFib and sleep apnea, but understanding the relationship is still in a state of evolution. Sleep apnea patients have about four times greater risk of AFib developing. It has been shown that sleep apnea actually causes some abnormalities in the heart beat (arrhythmias) to occur during sleep.

Studies show that treatment of AFib in patients who have both AFib and sleep apnea is more effective if the sleep apnea is treated. Since sleep apnea is diagnosed by a sleep study, it may make sense to have a sleep study if one has AFib. Sleep apnea is treatable. Talk to your doctor about the possibility of having sleep apnea if you have AFib.

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Dr. Donald Johnson founded Northwest Treatment Center for Snoring & Sleep Apnea in Coeur d’Alene to help patients stop their snoring and live free with no limits! His office is at 114 W. Neider Ave., near Costco. The website for more information is www.NWSleepDoc.com and the office phone is (208) 667-4551. Schedule an appointment today!

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