Thrive by IU Health

February 23, 2024

The hidden link between sleep apnea and stroke risk

IU Health West Hospital

The hidden link between sleep apnea and stroke risk

By Bonnie Le, registered nurse at IU Health West

Untreated sleep apnea, a condition characterized by frequent pauses in breathing during sleep, can potentially increase the risk of atrial fibrillation and stroke. Approximately half of atrial fibrillation patients also suffer from sleep apnea, highlighting the importance of seeking medical evaluation and treatment to mitigate these health risks.

Have you ever been told that you snore like a chainsaw? Have you ever been rudely awakened by your spouse because they were afraid you’d stopped breathing? Do you experience frequent daytime sleepiness? If you’re like many Americans, you may write off these experiences as minor annoyances. You may, however, be experiencing a potentially serious condition called sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a condition where one’s breathing stops and starts frequently during sleep. The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This is often caused by obesity or enlarged tonsils, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. While the brain’s respiratory center usually prompts a breath before a serious lack of oxygen in the bloodstream occurs, untreated sleep apnea can lead to other problems.

One of these potential problems is a condition called atrial fibrillation. In atrial fibrillation, the top two chambers of the heart (the atria) beat at an extremely fast rate. This causes a quivering motion in those chambers, which creates the ideal environment for blood clots to form.

According to Dr. Omar Batal, cardiologist at IU Health West, “Sleep apnea is potentially associated with atrial fibrillation, and about 50% of patients with atrial fibrillation may have sleep apnea. Untreated sleep apnea may make it more likely to have recurrent atrial fibrillation.”

So, what’s the big deal? Well, the blood clots created by atrial fibrillation are a major source for cerebrovascular embolisms - better known as strokes. When blood clots are ejected out of the heart into the bloodstream, the first place they travel is the brain. If they’re too large to fit through the smaller vessels, they can cause a blockage that leads to brain damage. The longer brain tissue goes without its blood supply, the more serious and long-lasting the stroke symptoms become. Familiarize yourself with the signs of a stroke.

If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, what can you do to lower your risk of atrial fibrillation and stroke? The first thing to do is talk with your doctor about doing a sleep study to screen for sleep apnea. You can learn more about sleep apnea and take a short online assessment by searching “Sleep Apnea” on IU Health’s website. If your family and friends are ribbing you about your snoring – listen! They may just save your life.

Find more information about atrial fibrillation here.


Sleep ApneaStroke

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