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Apr 28, 2015

Sleep Apnea Device Benefits Patients with AFib

Breathing device used at night helps cut AFib episodes in half, according to a review of recent studies.

A simple mask that improves breathing during sleep could prevent an abnormal heartbeat in patients with atrial fibrillation (AFib), according to a comprehensive review of past studies.

Published in JACC Clinical Electrophysiology, this study analyzed data from past trials focused on treating sleep apnea in patients with atrial fibrillation, the most common type of irregular heart rhythm. Obstructive sleep apnea is a common condition in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. Although many view sleep apnea as more of a nuisance, sleep apnea has been linked to a number of serious conditions, including atrial fibrillation. Not only can sleep apnea cause AFib, it can trigger an abnormal heartbeat in patients already living with this condition.

To see whether sleep apnea treatment helps reduce episodes of AFib, researchers analyzed data from seven studies that included more than 1,000 patients with AFib and sleep apnea. In all seven studies, patients were treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which is a mask worn during sleep to prevent apnea and snoring. Researchers also tracked patients’ cardiovascular health to compare the number of AFib episodes in different study groups.

After analysis, researchers found that CPAP use nearly cut risk of AFib episodes in half, even after taking into account differences in AFib treatments. Those using CPAP were 42% less likely to experience an abnormal heart rhythm than those not receiving such treatment.

This study is among the largest of its kind to demonstrate the benefits of sleep apnea treatment in patients with AFib. Although there are multiple studies on the topic, most were small and had varied outcomes. This most recent review, which included more than 1,000 patients, helps provide more compelling evidence that CPAP helps significantly reduce episodes of AFib.

However, it’s important to point out that CPAP is not the only treatment for sleep apnea. For patients with mild sleep apnea, simple lifestyle changes like weight loss and quitting smoking may be enough to treat the condition. Healthy lifestyle choices can also go a long way in preventing ever developing both sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation. But for patients already diagnosed with both sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation, CPAP may be an effective way to promote normal breathing and a healthy heartbeat.

Read the full study in JACC Clinical Electrophysiology.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How do I know if I have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)?

  • A telltale sign of OSA is chronic loud snoring, interspersed with sounds of gasping or choking. Often a person isn’t aware of his or her own snoring and it will take a family member or bed partner to point it out. (Not everyone who snores has OSA, however.)  Another prime indicator of OSA for most people is daytime sleepiness, although heart failure patients complain of this symptom less often.

    To confirm that you have OSA, your doctor will send you to an overnight sleep laboratory for specialized testing called polysomnography. If this technology isn’t available where you live, in-home monitoring devices may be an alternative. 

  • How does continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) work?

  • CPAP is often recommended for patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea. This device delivers air pressure through a mask worn during sleep to help prevent apnea and snoring. However, for patients with mild apnea, the condition can sometimes be treated with lifestyle changes, such as weight loss or quitting smoking.

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