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What causes sleep paralysis? 6 possible conditions

What Is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a temporary loss of muscle function. It typically occurs as a person is falling asleep, shortly after they have fallen asleep, or while they are waking up.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a similar type of paralysis occurs during REM sleep. This is the time when dreaming is at its peak (Mayo Clinic, 2010). The difference is that the person sleeping is not usually aware of immobility during episodes of REM sleep.

Episodes of sleep paralysis may occur along with another sleep disorder known as narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that causes overwhelming drowsiness and sudden “sleep attacks” throughout the day. However, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), many people who are not affected by narcolepsy can also experience sleep paralysis (NIH, 2012).

This condition is not dangerous and no medical intervention is required.

Factors That Can Increase the Risk of Sleep Paralysis

Children and adults of all ages can experience sleep paralysis. However, certain groups are at a higher risk than others. These high risk groups include:

  • those with anxiety disorders
  • those who have bipolar disorder
  • those who are affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • those who are affected by depression

In some cases, sleep paralysis seems to run in families. However, this is rare. There is no indication that the condition is hereditary.

Sleeping on your back may increase your chances of an episode. Lack of sleep may also increase the risk of sleep paralysis.

What Occurs During Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is not a medical emergency. Being familiar with the symptoms can provide peace of mind.

The most common characteristic of an episode of sleep paralysis is the inability to move or speak. According to the NIH, an immobility episode may last for a few seconds to about two minutes (NIH, 2012).

Episodes typically end on their own, or when another person touches or moves you. You may be aware of what is happening but still unable to move or speak during an episode. You also may be able to recall the details of the episode after temporary paralysis disappears.

In rare cases, some people experience dream-like hallucinations that may cause fear or anxiety, but these hallucinations are harmless.

Sleep Paralysis and Narcolepsy

Sleep paralysis can occur on its own. However, it is also a common symptom of narcolepsy. Signs of narcolepsy include:

  • falling asleep suddenly
  • problems remaining alert throughout the day
  • sudden muscle weakness
  • vivid hallucinations

Treating Sleep Paralysis

Symptoms of sleep paralysis typically resolve within a matter of minutes and do not cause any lasting physical effects or trauma. However, the experience can be quite unsettling and frightening.

Sleep paralysis that occurs in isolation does not typically require treatment. However, those who also have signs of narcolepsy should consult with a physician. This is especially important if symptoms interfere with your work and home life.

Your doctor may wish to conduct a sleep study (polysomnography) to make a diagnosis if you experience sleep paralysis and other symptoms of narcolepsy. This type of study requires an overnight stay at a hospital or sleep center.

A doctor will place electrodes on your chin, scalp, and at the outer edge of your eyelids. The electrodes measure electrical activity in your muscles and your brain waves. Your doctor will also monitor your breathing and heart rate. In some cases, a video camera will record your movements during sleep.

Your doctor may prescribe certain drugs to help manage the condition your sleep paralysis if narcolepsy is the underlying cause. The most commonly prescribed medications are stimulants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (such as Prozac). Stimulants help you stay awake. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors help manage symptoms associated with narcolepsy (Mayo Clinic, 2010).

You can minimize symptoms or frequency of episodes with a few simple lifestyle changes, such as:

  • reducing stress
  • regular exercise (but not close to bedtime)
  • keeping a regular sleep schedule
  • getting enough rest

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders/disturbances can cause your sleep to be disturbed. Disturbed sleep includes the inability to fall asleep, the inability to go back to sleep, and frequent waking up during the night. Sleep disorders ca...

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Depression Overview

Depression is a mood disorder that can cause extreme and persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. Depression type largely determines what kind of medical treatment is best.

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What is anxiety? Anxiety often manifests itself as an apprehension about daily life. Learn the basics with this overview of the types of anxiety disorders.

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Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a condition chararcterized by persistent anxiety and recurrent panic attacks. Sweating or chills are possible signs of a panic attack.

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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that occurs after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. PTSD can cause disruptive symptoms of panic, increased arousal, and mental/emotional problems.

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Narcolepsy is a disorder of the nervous system. It causes drowsiness and sleep attacks. It's also known as daytime sleep disorder and cataplexy. The Center for Narcolepsy (CN) at Stanford University School of Medicin...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.