Sleep Paralysis - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Sleep Paralysis - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

There are many physiological conditions that may not exactly be deemed as ailments, but their occurrence and recurrence can be quite disturbing to anyone. One such example is Sleep paralysis. It mostly takes place either when you fall sleep or when you wake up from deep sleep. The condition is defined as a state where your awareness and senses are normal, but the body is unable to make movements. It is also accompanied by Sleep Hallucinations and a sense of fear.

This is a condition that can affect both genders and people from almost all ethnicities and races can be affected by it. Folklores and superstitions relating the condition to demons and unholy spirits abound in many cultures. It does not lead to any fatal results, but the impact on mind can be quite traumatic. It is among top Sleep Disorders people go through sometimes in life.

The causes of Sleep Paralysis

When you sleep, your body goes through 90-minute sleep cycles that alternate between non-rapid eye movement and rapid eye movement. The majority of the time you sleep is spent in 4 stages of NREM during which the body repairs, relaxes and regenerates tissues and boosts the immune system. During the REM phase, brain activity increases and this is when you actually dream. In this stage, voluntary muscles are paralyzed so that you do not actually act out the dream and hurt yourself. If it takes place as you wake up, it is termed post dormital sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis happens when you awake before the completion of REM stage. This makes your body unable to move, but some senses return. This often leads to the onset of a panic. No fixed neurological factor can be attributed to its onset in people.

The Major Causes That Lead to Its Onset Are:

  • Disruption of regular sleep patterns
  • Insomnia
  • Overuse of stimulants/substance abuse
  • Stress
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Lots of physical fatigue
  • Other sleep problems like Narcolepsy
  • Genetic roots

The Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis

On an average, 4 out of 10 people experience this sometimes in life. The first occurrence takes place in teenage in most cases, as it has been often documented. However, it can actually occur at any age. The major symptom of Dream Paralysis is the inability to move a body after waking up. Additionally, some people feel like a heavy weight is sitting on their chest. The condition may last from a few seconds to some minutes. Some people face difficulty in breathing as well. All the while the victims stay awake. Some of them have described the sensation like waking up dead, as if in a different world. For some people, opening eyes is possible while others cannot. Hallucinations of some other beings or creatures in the room are being felt by some victims as well.

Treatment for Sleep Paralysis

For a majority of people who undergo this sleep disorder, no specific treatment is advised by doctors. However, if there is an underlying cause that leads to the onset of sleep paralysis that should be treated. Adopting some preventive measures can also be helpful.

Avoiding Stimulants:

Consuming specific stimulant foods and beverages before sleep can actually disrupt your sleep patterns leading to sleep paralysis at times. So, you should avoid in taking those particular foods and drinks before bedtime. You should ideally evade drinking much coffee, alcohol and in taking nicotine before hitting the bed. You may also evade watching late night movies and soaps as they can hamper your regular sleep schedule.

Keeping Distractions Away:

At times, sleep disruptions can also be caused by specific devices and gadgets. If you find mobile, lights and other objects are actually hampering your sleep, keep them away from the bedroom.

Better Sleeping Habits:

You may even think of changing bed position and sleeping attire to improve sleep patterns at times. In some cases, maintaining a fixed time for hitting the bed and waking up also helps. Use curtains on doors and windows to ensure room is dark when you sleep. For some people, enjoying a relaxing aromatic bath before sleeping can also be helpful.

Seeing a Specialist:

If you find the events of sleep paralysis are recurring and that is affecting your life, visiting a specialist doctor is helpful. The doctor can figure out the root cause and suggest medications or antidepressants accordingly. However, most people do not need to do this. At times, it may be found that specific medication you are taking has some components that are causing sleeping pattern irregularities.

Stress Management:

In many women and men affected by sleep paralysis, the underlying cause is stress.Stress can be triggered by so many factors in life, as it is. The reasons include job woes, relationship issues, financial problems, any serious ailment or other things. The source of stress needs to be tackled first. You may seek services of a psychologist or resort to medication to keep stress under control.

Being Aware of the Reality:

Most importantly, you need to tell yourself sleep paralysis is not dangerous and neither does it involve spirits or demons. The phase may recur, but ultimately it is not going to cause you any harm. Try to stay calm when it recurs that helps in reducing the duration and acuteness of the phase. In any case, it is not going to cause any major harm to your health or well being.

Where It All Leads To?

The real cause of sleep paralysis is yet to be discovered, but most affected persons have either sleeping pattern problems, or are affected by stress or habit of taking stimulants before bedtime. The symptoms are well known and the consequences are not serious. So, your focus should be on staying calm during its occurrence and evading things that can trigger its onset. Underlying sleep problems, however need to be treated. In most cases, the affected people are able to cope with it and do not require expert medical intervention.

Reviewed By:

Dr. Kaushal M. Bhavsar (MBBS, MD)

Assistant Professor in Pulmonary Medicine, GMERS Medical College, Ahmedabad