Night Terrors

Written by Rachel Barclay | Published on January 6, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on January 6, 2014

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are a form of sleep disorder in which a person partially awakens from sleep in a state of terror. A sufferer of night terrors experiences an activation of his or her fight-or-flight system. Children may sit up crying or screaming.

Night terrors usually occur during the deepest stage of sleep. This stage is most common during the first third of sleep, often between the times of midnight and two a.m. (Kaneshiro, 2011). Night terrors are not nightmares, which are a form of dreaming. Because the person may still be partially asleep during a night terror, they are can be inconsolable and unaware of their surroundings. They may have no memory of the episode when they awaken. Night terror episodes typically last 10 to 20 minutes.

Night terrors are relatively uncommon and predominantly affect children under the age of 12 (Mayo Clinic, 2011). Children typically grow out of night terrors. Children with night terrors often also sleepwalk.

Who Is Affected By Night Terrors?

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, night terrors affect as many as 6.5 percent of children and 2.2 percent of adults.

Night Terrors in Children

Night terrors are most common in boys ages 5 to 7 (Kaneshiro, 2011). They are fairly common in children of both genders ages 3 to 7, after which they become less common.

There is some evidence that night terrors run in families. It is rare for night terrors to persist beyond the age of 12.

Night Terrors in Adults

Night terrors occur less frequently in adults. They can be a result of post-traumatic stress disorder or other anxiety disorders. Night terrors can also result from substance abuse, particularly alcohol abuse.

What Causes Night Terrors?

The cause of night terrors is often unknown, but the condition may result from lack of sleep or high levels of stress. Conflict and tension in the home is one example of a stressor that may bring on night terrors in children.

Night Terrors in Children

Childhood night terrors appear to be a normal part of the immature nervous system developing. This may cause the fight-or-flight response to occur at the wrong times. Children spending the night in an unfamiliar place may also be more likely to experience night terrors.

Children typically grow out of night terrors without psychiatric intervention.

Night Terrors in Adults

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, possible causes of night terrors in adults are:

  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • bipolar disorder
  • some depressive disorders
  • general anxiety disorder
  • substance abuse, particularly alcohol abuse.

In adults, night terrors are usually more severe and often accompany other sleep disturbances, such insomnia or sleep apnea. In these cases, medical intervention may help.

What Are the Symptoms of Night Terrors?

Night terrors typically occur during the deepest stage of sleep, which occurs during the first third of the sleep cycle.

Possible symptoms of night terrors include:

  • partially or fully awakening from sleep very suddenly
  • screaming or thrashing
  • intense fear or terror from an unknown source
  • wide eyes with dilated pupils
  • rapid breathing
  • racing heart
  • elevated blood pressure
  • sweating

If the person has only partially awakened, he or she may not be aware of surroundings or remember the episode the next morning. Adults are more likely to remember their night terrors.

How Are Night Terrors Treated?

Children with night terrors generally require only comfort. If a child is unresponsive during night terrors, parents should not try to wake the child, but hold the child firmly and speak soothingly until the episode ends. Usually, the child will ease back to sleep afterwards.

Parents should seek medical care for their child if the night terrors are caused by an underlying condition or are the result of a head injury.

Therapy

Relaxation techniques or talk therapy may help a person cope with the stress causing the night terrors.

Medication

In rare, severe cases, a doctor may prescribe benzodiazepine tranquilizers to help the patient relax and sleep without interruption.

What Is the Outlook for Night Terrors?

Children typically grow out of night terrors on their own as they enter adolescence. Most symptoms disappear by the age of 10.

Adults with night terrors can expect their night terrors to diminish once they receive treatment for the condition causing their night terrors.

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