When Sleeping, Apnea Poses Serious Heart Risks

A sleep study may be what you need to diagnose this dangerous condition.

sleeping apnea

One of many problems caused by sleep apnea: fatigue during the day.

© Studiovespa | Dreamstime.com

Snoring while you sleep may be doing much more than keeping your partner awake. It could be alerting you or anyone within earshot that you may have a potentially serious condition called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). A temporary pause in breathing while you’re sleeping, apnea may occur a few times a night or hundreds of times.

Usually, an overnight sleeping study is needed to confirm that you have OSA. During the study, which is conducted at a sleep center, you’ll be hooked up to sensors that monitor your breathing and heart rate. While you’re sleeping, apnea episodes are recorded throughout the night. A few minor pauses may not be a concern. But if your breathing pauses off and on throughout the night, your doctor will probably recommend sleep apnea treatment.

“The evidence is very strong for the relationship between sleep apnea and hypertension and cardiovascular disease generally, so people need to know that,” says Donna Arnett, PhD, chair of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and former president of the American Heart Association.

Sleeping, Apnea, and Blood Pressure

Your blood pressure usually dips while you’re sleeping. Apnea, however, causes oxygen levels in the body to fall as well. When this happens, special cells known as receptors tell the brain that the body is low in oxygen. Your nervous system then signals your blood vessels to constrict and force more oxygen-rich blood to the heart. This pattern can continue even when you’re awake. When your arteries constrict, blood pressure rises because it’s harder to move a healthy flow of blood through narrower arteries.

sleeping apnea

Sleep apnea produces multiple symptoms and can result in all kinds of complications. [Photo: © Robwilson39 | Dreamstime.com]

Even if you take medications to try to control hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea can make it harder to manage your blood pressure.

“High blood pressure that is resistant to treatment with medications is a strong warning sign for the presence of obstructive sleep apnea, a chronic disease that increases the risk for heart disease and stroke,” says Timothy Morgenthaler, MD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Sleeping, Apnea, and Heart Rate

One of the other serious consequences OSA can have on your health is an increased heart rate. The frequent changes in your body’s oxygen levels can cause your heart to beat faster. The condition can also raise the risk of developing an irregular heart rate, called an arrhythmia.

When you have a sleep study, your heart rate will be measured all night long. Rapid or irregular heart rates will be recorded. Your doctor will be able to show you how often your heart rate changed and for how long your heart was beating too fast or wasn’t beating in a healthy, normal rhythm.

Treating Sleep Apnea

If your sleep study reveals that you have OSA, the next step will depend largely on how serious your condition is and what factors may contribute to the problem.

If you have very large tonsils, for example, a tonsillectomy may be enough to stop your sleep apnea. Losing weight, especially if you have a large neck, may help, too. OSA is caused by tissue relaxing in the back of your throat while you lie on your back and sleep. Carrying excess weight in your neck can further restrict your airways while sleeping. Apnea can sometimes be reduced if you sleep on your side.

You may need a special device you wear over your nose and mouth while sleeping. Apnea can be overcome with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This bedside device pumps air through a flexible tube into your airways to keep them open and to keep oxygen flowing into your lungs—and eventually into your heart and the rest of your body.

Not everyone who snores has OSA. But if you snore, ask your partner if you also gasp for breath. If it seems that while you’re sleeping, apnea episodes are occurring with some regularity, schedule a sleep study soon.


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Jay Roland

Jay Roland has been executive editor of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory since 2017. Previously, he held the same position with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Advisor, since 2007. In … Read More

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