Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is associated with cardiovascular morbidity and may precipitate cardiac dysrhythmias. Uncontrolled reports suggest that continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) may reduce dysrhythmia frequency and resting heart rate. We undertook a randomised controlled trial of therapeutic CPAP and compared with a subtherapeutic control which included an exploration of changes in dysrhythmia frequency and heart rate. Values are expressed as mean (SD). Eighty-three men [49.5 (9.6) years] with moderate–severe OSA [Oxygen Desaturation Index, 41.2 (24.3) dips per hour] underwent 3-channel 24-h electrocardiograms during normal daily activities, before and after 1 month of therapeutic (n = 43) or subtherapeutic (n = 40) CPAP. Recordings were manually analysed for mean heart rate, pauses, bradycardias, supraventricular and ventricular dysrhythmias. The two groups were well matched for age, body mass index, OSA severity, cardiovascular risk factors and history. Supraventricular ectopics and ventricular ectopics were frequently found in 95.2% and 85.5% of patients, respectively. Less common were sinus pauses (42.2%), episodes of bradycardia (12%) and ventricular tachycardias (4.8%). Compared with subtherapeutic control, CPAP reduced mean 24-h heart rate from 83.0 (11.5) to 79.7 (9.8) (P < 0.002) in the CPAP group compared with a non-significant rise (P = 0.18) from 79.0 (10.4) to 79.9 (10.4) in the subtherapeutic group; this was also the case for the day period analysed separately. There was no significant change in the frequencies of dysrhythmias after CPAP. Four weeks of CPAP therapy reduces mean 24-h heart rate possibly due to reduced sympathetic activation but did not result in a significant decrease in dysrhythmia frequency.