Sudden cardiac death appears to be more prevalent during the normal sleeping hours in obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) patients compared with the general population as well as to cardiovascular disease patients. The reasons for this remain unclear, but there are three likely main contributors to nocturnal death in OSA patients; cardiac arrhythmias, stroke/ruptured cerebral aneurism and myocardial infarction. Particularly marked cardiovascular system activation with arousal may play a role in initiating sudden adverse cardiovascular events in OSA. The purpose of this study was to investigate cardiac RR, QT and PR interval changes in the electrocardiogram (ECG) associated with spontaneous and respiratory-related arousals in OSA patients. A detailed observational study of ECG records obtained during conventional diagnostic sleep study with no further interventions was carried out in 20 patients (12 males, age 42.8 +/- 2.1 years, body mass index 35.1 +/- 1.9 kg m(-2), and respiratory disturbance index 51.8 +/- 6.4 events/hour). RR and QT intervals showed significant shortening during arousals. RR interval shortening was found to be greater during respiratory arousals when compared to spontaneous arousals. PR interval showed a trend toward a greater prolongation during respiratory arousal. QT interval shortening was weakly correlated with arterial oxygen saturation levels preceding arousal. In conclusion, these data suggest that despite greater cardiac acceleration following respiratory versus spontaneous arousals from sleep, QT shortening and PR prolongation responses are similar independent of arousal type. These data support that arousals produce quite marked and differential cardiac conduction system activation in OSA and that the degree and pattern of activation may be partly influenced by the presence and severity of preceding respiratory events.