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Friday, September 19, 2014
I felt something touch my shoulder last night and was startled. I looked up over my bed and there was a man`s head coming in the window. I touched his chin and flew out of bed yelling for my husband while I was running from my room. The poor guy went for his gun and it had fallen on the floor. He got it and he went into the bedroom and checked the window. "There`s no one out there," he said. I looked at him like I couldn`t understand what was wrong with him. I pointed to the other window and he looked that way. I turned the light on and there was no window in that wall. Just a blank wall and the head of my bed. I couldn`t believe my eyes. What in the world had I felt? It took a min. for me to realize I had had another hallucination. These things have repeatedly scared me half to death. What causes them and what can be done about them? It`s bad enough that they shake me up so but I sure don`t want me husband to go through this again.
The sleep-associated symptom of feeling, hearing or seeing things that are not present represents what is called a sleep-related hallucination. This may be a sign of a primary sleep disorder or possibly a psychiatric condition.
Sleep-related hallucinations are usually visual (seeing things), though they can be auditory (hearing things), tactile (sensation of feeling something) or kinetic (feeling of motion or movement). They more commonly occur with sleep onset (known as hypnagogic hallucinations) but can happen with morning awakenings (hypnapompic hallucinations) as well. Sleep related hallucinations can be frightening and may, at times, be associated with other sleep behaviors such as sleep walking or sleep talking.
The underlying cause of sleep related hallucinations is not always clear. Factors known to bring these about or increase the frequency of occurrences include younger age, current drug use, past alcohol use, anxiety, mood disorders, insomnia and lack of sleep. Certain medications may also cause this as a side effect. In addition, these hallucinations may be a sign or symptom of another sleep disorder, such narcolepsy, a primary nightmare disorder, migraine headaches, or, rarely, they could be part of sleep-related seizures (epilepsy). Psychiatric disease (such as schizophrenia) should also be included as a possibility, though assuming these hallucinations occur only with sleep, then this would be less likely.
Depending on the underlying cause or factors associated with the hallucinations, they may decrease or resolve with age. Identifying factors associated with the hallucinations (such as alcohol use or lack of sleep) and avoiding these may help to decrease the frequency or intensity of the problem. In cases where this does not occur, specific treatments are available, though the type of treatment will depend upon the underlying cause of the hallucinations.
It certainly sounds as though your symptoms are significant. It would be a good idea to discuss her problems with her Primary Care Doctor. Referral to a Sleep Specialist, Psychiatrist and/or a Neurologist may be needed, depending on specifics in your history and examination. Additional testing may be required to help sort out the cause of the hallucinations.
To learn more about sleep or other sleep disorders, please visit the American Academy of Sleep Medicine website. In addition to information, the website contains a list of Sleep Centers across the country so that you may locate one near you. The website Sleep Education.com also provides plenty of good consumer friendly information. Good luck and here's to better sleep!
Dennis Auckley, MD
Associate Professor of Medicine
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University