What causes sleep paralysis? 6 possible conditions
Sleep paralysis is a temporary loss of muscle function while you’re sleeping. It typically occurs as a person is falling asleep, shortly after they have fallen asleep, or while they’re waking up. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, those... Read more
Sleep paralysis is a temporary loss of muscle function while you’re sleeping. It typically occurs as a person is falling asleep, shortly after they have fallen asleep, or while they’re waking up.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, those with sleep paralysis usually experience this condition for the first time between the ages of 14 and 17 years old. It is a fairly common sleep condition. Researchers estimate it occurs in anywhere between 5 and 40 percent of people.
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 Mayo Clinic, many people who don’t have narcolepsy can still experience sleep paralysis.
This condition isn’t dangerous. Though it is perhaps alarming to some, no medical intervention is usually necessary.
Sleep paralysis isn’t 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. An immobility episode may last for a few seconds to about two minutes.
Episodes typically end on their own, or when another person touches or moves you. You may be aware of what’s 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 dreamlike 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’s also a common symptom of narcolepsy. Signs of narcolepsy include falling asleep suddenly, problems remaining alert throughout the day, sudden muscle weakness, and vivid hallucinations.
Children and adults of all ages can experience sleep paralysis. However, certain groups are at a higher risk than others. High-risk groups include people with the following conditions:
- anxiety disorders
- major depression
- bipolar disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
In some cases, sleep paralysis seems to run in families. However, this is rare. There’s no clear scientific evidence 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.
Symptoms of sleep paralysis typically resolve within a matter of minutes and don’t cause any lasting physical effects or trauma. However, the experience can be quite unsettling and frightening.
Sleep paralysis that occurs in isolation doesn’t typically require treatment. However, those who also have signs of narcolepsy should consult a doctor. This is especially important if symptoms interfere with your work and home life.
Your doctor may wish to conduct a sleep study, called a polysomnography. The results of the study will help your doctor make a diagnosis, if you are experiencing 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 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 your sleep paralysis if narcolepsy is the underlying cause. The most commonly prescribed medications are stimulants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (Prozac). Stimulants help you stay awake. SSRIs help manage symptoms associated with narcolepsy.
You can minimize symptoms or frequency of episodes with a few simple lifestyle changes:
- Reduce stress in your life.
- Exercise regularly, but not close to bedtime.
- Get sufficient rest.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
- Keep track of medications you take for any conditions.
- Know the side effects and interactions of your different medications, so you can avoid potential side effects, including sleep paralysis.
If you have a mental disorder such as anxiety or depression, taking an antidepressant may diminish episodes of sleep paralysis. Antidepressants can help reduce the amount of dream sleep you have, which lessens sleep paralysis, according to the American Association of Sleep Medicine.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2015, September 1). Narcolepsy. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcolepsy/basics/definition/con-20027429
- Sleep paralysis. (1999, January 26). Retrieved from http://www.stanford.edu/~dement/paralysis.html
- Sleep paralysis—Overview & facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.sleepeducation.org/sleep-disorders-by-category/parasomnias/sleep-paralysis/overview-facts
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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