Patients with obstructive sleep apnea experience repetitive apneic events during sleep, with consequent hypoxia and hypercapnia. Hypoxia and hypercapnia, acting via the chemoreflexes, elicit increases in sympathetic nerve activity. The sympathetic responses to hypoxia and hypercapnia are potentiated during apnea, when the sympathetic inhibitory influence of the thoracic afferent nerves is eliminated. As a consequence of the sympathetic vasoconstrictor response to apneic events, patients with obstructive sleep apnea manifest marked increases in blood pressure during sleep, especially evident at the end of the apnea.
The increases in sympathetic activity and blood pressure during sleep in these patients appear to carry over into the daytime such that patients with sleep apnea have an increased prevalence of hypertension and high levels of sympathetic nerve activity. Although the mechanism underlying the persistent elevation in sympathetic activity during the daytime is not known, it is likely that the increased sympathetic drive is implicated in the higher daytime blood pressures in these patients.
Whereas patients with sleep apnea have an increased prevalence of hypertension, in those patients with sleep apnea who do have hypertension, the sympathetic response to apneic events may be potentiated. This may be secondary to impaired baroreflex sensitivity, since the baroreflexes exert an inhibitory influence on the chemoreflex responses to hypoxia.
Treatment with continuous positive airway pressure results in an acute reduction in blood pressure and sympathetic activity during sleep. Prolonged effective treatment of sleep apnea may also reduce daytime blood pressure levels.
This review examines the physiology of the chemoreflex responses to hypoxia, hypercapnia and apnea, as well as the physiologic responses to sleep in normal humans. These physiologic responses are compared with the pathophysiologic sympathetic and hemodynamic responses that characterize obstructive sleep apnea. Increases in sympathetic activity and blood pressure in patients with obstructive sleep apnea may play a role in linking sleep apnea to hypertension and cardiac and vascular events.