Patients with obstructive sleep apnea are considered to be at increased risk of sudden, presumably arrhythmia-related death during sleep. The present study was undertaken to determine the relationship between ventricular ectopy and the severity of oxyhemoglobin desaturation in these patients. Thirty-one male patients with obstructive sleep apnea (mean age, 55 +/- 11 years) underwent overnight polysomnography. Arterial oxyhemoglobin saturation (SaO2) was monitored by ear oximetry, and premature ventricular complexes (PVC) were detected using electrocardiographic leads CC5 and CM5. The data were recorded on electromagnetic tape for subsequent computer-assisted analysis to obtain PVC frequency as a function of decile levels of SaO2. Total sleep time averaged 333 +/- 75 minutes, the apnea index was 44 +/- 26 per hour, and the hypopnea index was 18 +/- 24 per hour. Premature ventricular complexes were observed in 23 (74 percent) of the subjects. By analysis of variance, no significant relationship was found between PVC frequency and decile levels of SaO2 for saturations greater than 60 percent; however, in the 16 subjects with SaO2 below 60 percent, a significant increase in PVC frequency was detected with decreasing SaO2 (p less than 0.01). Ventricular bigeminy was observed with SaO2 below 60 percent in three of these 16 subjects. From these results, we conclude that patients with obstructive sleep apnea are at relatively low risk of developing ventricular arrhythmias provided SaO2 remains greater than 60 percent, while those with SaO2 below 60 percent are at increased risk and should be managed accordingly.