Sleep Paralysis: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Sleep Paralysis: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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Last Updated on Jun 21, 2022

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    Imagine you just woke up, your mind is alert, but you are unable to move a muscle. You sense an evil presence in your room, and it feels as if someone is sitting on your chest. You feel fear and dread. It sounds like a night terror, but it’s not. It is actually an episode of sleep paralysis.

    What Is Sleep Paralysis?

    Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon where your muscle movements are inhibited, but your eyes are open, and you are conscious of your surroundings. It occurs:

    • At the onset of sleep. (Known as hypnagogic sleep paralysis or predormital sleep paralysis).
    • Just after waking up from sleep. (Known as hypnopompic sleep paralysis or postdormital sleep paralysis).

    It can last anywhere from 20 seconds to a few minutes and affects around 7.6% of the population.

    Sleep paralysis is generally categorized into three types based on its recurrence and co-occurrence with narcolepsy:

    1. Isolated Sleep Paralysis:

    Isolated episodes that occur independently of narcolepsy and other medical conditions.

    2. Recurrent Sleep Paralysis:

    Recurring episodes of sleep paralysis are often seen in patients with narcolepsy.

    3. Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis (RISP):

    Recurring episodes of sleep paralysis in someone who does not have narcolepsy.

    What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

    Sleep paralysis is an under-researched phenomenon, and so the exact causes of sleep paralysis are unknown. Researchers believe that sleep paralysis causes are likely to be multifaceted. The following reasons have been linked to causing sleep paralysis:

    • Disrupted REM sleep: There are four stages of sleep categorized into two phases of your sleep cycle- The REM phase and The Non-REM phase. Your body cycles through these phases as you sleep. As you enter the REM phase, your mind becomes more active, meaning that the sleep is not very deep. It is at this stage that you have vivid dreams. Your brain relaxes your muscles to stop your body from enacting these dreams. This is known as muscle atonia. If you become aware as your body enters or exits REM sleep, you may experience sleep paralysis.

    • As per a study of sleep paralysis and associated factors- General sleep quality, Exposure to threatening events, anxiety symptoms are all predictors of sleep paralysis. The same study concluded that genetics are also partially to blame for sleep paralysis.

    • Other causes linked to sleep paralysis are- stress, sleep deprivation, and disrupted sleep schedule. Sleep paralysis is also linked to other medical conditions such as Narcolepsy, Obstructive Sleep Apnea, PTSD, Bipolar disorder.

    When Does Sleep Paralysis Occur?

    On the basis of occurrence, you can say that there are two types of sleep paralysis:

    • Hypnagogic sleep paralysis:

      Also known as predormital sleep paralysis, occurs at sleep onset, i.e., just before falling asleep.

    • Hypnopompic sleep paralysis:

      Also known as postdormital sleep paralysis, occurs just after waking up, i.e., as you transition from sleep to awakening.

    Sleep Paralysis Symptoms

    The primary symptom of sleep paralysis is muscle atonia, i.e., your inability to move your body. Even though you are conscious and can move your eyes, your body is paralyzed.

    Muscle atonia is often accompanied by hallucinations. The hallucinations vary but generally come in three different types:

    • The intruder: You sense a threatening presence in your bedroom.
    • The incubus: You feel something pressing on your chest, choking or assaulting you.
    • Levitation: You feel as if you are hovering over your bed.

    Hence muscle atonia and hallucinations, along with the feelings of fear and breathlessness, are the main symptoms of sleep paralysis.

    How Is Sleep Paralysis Diagnosed?

    Sleep paralysis is generally not considered a medical diagnosis. If you feel the above-mentioned symptoms and it makes you anxious, you can consult a doctor that specializes in sleep conditions.

    The doctor will inquire about the symptoms, your medical history, any mental disorders, any family history, etc. The doctor may ask you to maintain a sleep diary for a few weeks to observe your sleeping patterns.

    If your doctor suspects any sleep disorders, he may recommend an overnight sleep study (polysomnography) to monitor your breathing, heart rate, and brain waves as you sleep.

    Is Sleep Paralysis Dangerous?

    Even though sleep paralysis can be an undeniably horrible experience for some people, it does not cause any bodily harm. There have been no reported deaths due to sleep paralysis to date.

    What happens during sleep paralysis can be very unsettling and scary, but in truth, it is not dangerous. Usually, no medical intervention is required.

    How Is Sleep Paralysis Treated?

    Treatment for sleep paralysis is only required if it is due to any underlying condition. Sleep paralysis on its own does not need any medical treatment.

    If your episodes are because of any mental condition, you should consult a psychiatrist. If your episodes are because of any sleep disorders, you should consult a sleep expert. Most of the time, good sleep hygiene will do the trick.

    How to Prevent Sleep Paralysis?

    To lower the risk of any sleep paralysis episode, you can improve your lifestyle and sleep hygiene. You can use the following tips to do the same:

    • Stick to a sleep schedule and get optimal sleep (7-8 hours).
    • Add pre-sleep relaxation practices into your nightly routine.
    • Ensure a cozy sleep environment.
    • Avoid caffeine or alcohol before bed.
    • Make a morning exercise routine.
    • Limit the use of electronics before sleep.
    • Spend some time in the sunlight.

    Now, if you feel as if you are being abducted by aliens, do not fear. You are most likely just having an episode of night paralysis. Keep calm and let it pass, and everything will be okay.

    This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.
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    References

    1. Brian A Sharpless, A clinician's guide to recurrent isolated sleep paralysis.

      https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27486325/

    2. Brian A. Sharpless and Jacques P. Barber, Lifetime Prevalence Rates of Sleep Paralysis: A Systematic Review

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156892/

    3. Dan Denis, Christopher C. French, Richard Rowe, Helena M. S. Zavos, Patrick M. Nolan, Michael J. Parsons, and Alice M. Gregory. A twin and molecular genetics study of sleep paralysis and associated factors

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4950339/

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