Patient Blogs | Atrial Fibrillation
Sleep Apnea Can Trigger AFib, So Don’t Ignore It
photo of hand of person holding mask

Do you ever get jolted awake in the middle of the night and your heart’s racing (and it wasn’t from a dream)? Does your sleep partner or housemate complain about your snoring or snorting? Do you wake up with headaches? Or scariest of all scenarios, do you wake up in AFib when you were in normal rhythm when you went to bed, and the AFib resolves itself over the day?

I had all those symptoms. My cardiologist sent me for a sleep study. Years ago, sleep studies were only done in the sleep lab. You slept there overnight with electrodes attached all over your scalp and EKG leads in the usual places and left in the morning with lots of goo in your hair. Nowadays, you can do a sleep study at home, with a multi-lead EKG monitor, a couple of bands around your chest, and an oximeter on your finger. Still not the most comfortable night’s sleep, but much better than the sleep lab.

My at-home sleep study showed that I had sleep apnea. Put most simply, this means that something is causing you to get inadequate air/oxygen while you sleep, and your body is trying to kick start the normal breathing process again by jolting you awake. The snoring and snorting are the sound effects of sleep apnea (although not all snoring is caused by sleep apnea). The morning-only AFib reflects your heart’s struggle to deal with inadequate oxygen during the night. And you’re not getting quality sleep, so you’re always tired. There are many potential causes of sleep apnea, including physical breathing obstructions or the relaxation of throat muscles during sleep (caused by being overweight or the normal aging process).

Untreated sleep apnea places great strain on your body, especially your heart, and can trigger AFib episodes, as I was experiencing. I had no apparent physical obstructions. So, how do you treat sleep apnea? Because of my 30-plus-year history with AFib, my sleep doctor went right to the platinum treatment, CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy. This involves hooking yourself up to a CPAP machine every night, all night, which allows you to breathe pressurized air to keep the collapsed airways in your throat open. There are a lot of variables to figure out with CPAP therapy, including which kind of mask to use and how much pressure.

There was a lot of trial and error with my CPAP therapy adventure. I chose the smallest mask at first, something that fit over my nose only. I lovingly referred to it as my “bunny nose.” Come to find out, my jaw drops open during the night and my mouth breathing interfered with the CPAP’s work. I now use a larger mask that fits under my nose and covers my entire mouth. And I wear a chin strap to keep my jaw from dropping open. We also experimented with pressure on the CPAP machine, as too little pressure does not prevent the sleep apnea and too much pressure causes you to ingest air into your stomach (and wake up with a very painful bloat).

All sounds really romantic, right?! And just an all-round annoyance. Which is why so many people do not consistently use their CPAP. There is no question that CPAP therapy impacts your quality of life. I’m hooked up to this machine all night, so intimacy becomes a little more of a scheduled thing. It impacts travel as well, as most CPAP machines are not small and need to be plugged into power all night. I found a travel CPAP that works off a rechargeable battery, which I now use when we’re camping in the trailer. I’ve also had a dentist fit me with an oral device that readjusts my tongue during sleep to open the airway passages. I’m going to have a mini-sleep study soon to confirm that this device is actually preventing my sleep apnea, and I’ll start using that when I travel.

All that said, not using your CPAP at night also affects your quality of life. Waking up in AFib, being tired, making your heart work extra is all not fun or healthy. I’ve been quite surprised to learn how many of my friends (and their partners) sleep with CPAPs at night! Meaning it’s more common than you think. Moral of the story: Sleep apnea is serious business, especially for us AFib sufferers, and you should address it if you have it. Despite the inconveniences of its treatment. Learn more about sleep apnea here, and read patient blog posts here.



Photo Credit: Chalermpon Poungpeth / EyeEm via Getty Images

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Michele Straube

Michele Straube

Diagnosed since 1979

Michele Straube has lived with atrial fibrillation (AFib) for 42 years. Recently retired from a long career as an environmental mediator, her plans include travel and trailer camping with husband Bob and puppy Tux. She currently teaches ESL to adult immigrants and refugees, and she delivers Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors. She enjoys chatting with AFib patients to explore their path to living with the condition.

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