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Sleep Disorders: Sleep Paralysis

sleep disorders sleep paralysis

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and been unable to move your body but are fully conscious? If so, you may have experienced sleep paralysis. The unusual sensations caused by sleep paralysis – including hallucinations and the inability to move — may be frightening for those who experience them. Realizing you're awake but not being able to move seems like something out of a scary movie, but while the paralysis itself is not dangerous, it  can be an indication of more serious medical conditions.

What is sleep paralysis?

According to  Sleep Education's sleep paralysis definition, the temporary inability to move or speak just before or after an episode of sleep is considered to be sleep paralysis. A sometimes scary phenomenon, sleep paralysis is a type of parasomnia — a sleep disorder that involves abnormal movements, behaviors, emotions, perceptions or dreams that occur during sleep.

While most of us consider sleep paralysis to only occur after waking up from a scary dream, there are in fact two different types of this sleep disorder:

  • Hypnogogic or predormital paralysis occurs as someone is falling asleep.
  • Hypnopomic or postdormital paralysis occurs when someone awakens — sometimes thought of as dream paralysis.

Sleep Paralysis Symptoms

Just as there are two types of sleep paralysis, there are also a variety of symptoms that can be experienced. According to the  American Sleep Association, reports of sleep paralysis have included:

  • The temporary inability to move or speak
  • A sensation of tightening in the chest or a feeling of suffocation (even though breathing itself is unaffected)
  • Hallucinations
  • Feelings of fear or dread

How common is sleep paralysis?

While episodes of sleep paralysis last only a few seconds to a few minutes and usually resolve on their own, experiencing sleep paralysis is actually a fairly common occurrence. While estimates vary, it is believed that anywhere from 5% to 40% of adults will experience sleep paralysis at some point in their lives. For some, it may be a one-time event, but for others, sleep paralysis may occur many times a year and can be a sign of a more serious underlying condition.

What causes sleep paralysis?

So, why does sleep paralysis happen? The explanation is fairly simple.  Vital Record, a publication of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, explains that a person is actually awake and fully aware of an episode of sleep paralysis. However, the brain is telling the body that it is in the random eye movement (REM) sleep stage, the stage of sleep in which the most vivid dreams occur. During this stage, the body experiences atonia, a type of paralysis where the muscles relax and the limbs are temporarily paralyzed to prevent the body from acting out dreams. However, when sleep paralysis occurs, the body is still experiencing atonia despite the brain being awake.

While the exact causes of sleep paralysis are unknown, there are a variety of factors that can influence whether or not a person will experience sleep paralysis. For some, there is a strong genetic component in sleep paralysis. If other members of someone's family have it, a person is more likely to experience sleep paralysis in his/her lifetime as well, and it usually begins in adolescence, around the age of 14 to 17. Vital Record also reports that gender, age and ethnicity can be factors as sleep paralysis most common in young adults in their twenties and thirties, African Americans and women of all ages.

In addition to genetics, health and lifestyle choices can play an important role in experiencing sleep paralysis. You are more likely to experience sleep paralysis if you are sleep deprived, take certain medications or have a mental illness such as bipolar disorder. Also, sleep paralysis is also more common in those who sleep on their backs. And, according to the  Mayo Clinic, sleep paralysis can be a symptom of narcolepsy, a sleep disorder which causes daytime drowsiness and the tendency to fall asleep suddenly.

Sleep Paralysis Treatment

While there is no specific treatment for sleep paralysis, treating the underlying cause of the condition can help prevent further occurrences of sleep paralysis. In the case of narcolepsy, antidepressants are used to help reduce REM sleep — and thus, episodes of sleep paralysis. When a mental illness like bipolar disorder is a factor, ongoing treatment of that condition can also help. If sleep deprivation is the issue, then getting 7-9 hours of sleep nightly and practicing  good sleep hygiene is recommended (i.e. keeping a consistent sleep schedule, sleeping in a comfortable environment, regular physical activity and avoiding caffeine, alcohol or tobacco before bedtime).

Although sleep paralysis can be a disturbing experience, it does not negatively impact a person's health, and often, lifestyle changes can help with this problem. If you experience sleep paralysis, consulting with a doctor to discover the underlying causes of these episodes is wise and can help rule out another medical condition such as narcolepsy.

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