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Sleep Disorders

Sleep paralysis

02/26/2007

Question:

I`m writing to ask about something that happened to me today. The strangest thing happened to me this morning when i woke up.. I was sleeping on my stomach and had my arms resting on my pillow near my head (thats the position I was sleeping in).. when I woke up, I opened my eyes.. I attempted to move my arms to turn around but I couldn`t move.. I couldnt move my hands, my arms, my shoulders.. nothing, it was as if my whole body was frozen. My head was tilted to the side and so when I looked up, all I could see was this big dark shadow above me.. it felt like it was pushing me down and not letting me move. A friend of mine was sleeping in the bed next to me so I tried to call out her name, but I had no voice.. it was as if my voice was trapped inside and I couldnt speak... I tried to scream for her to help me but I couldn`t.. I stayed like that for 1 or 2 minutes until I was finally able to move.. when I managed to turn around I was in so much shock at what had just happened.. I was sooo confused and afraid. I didn`t tell anyone because I really didn`t know what had happened. I went online to research what this could be and when I read about `sleep paralysis` I realized it was exactly what I had. the feeling of being pushed down, not able to move, not able to speak, trouble breathing, a presence on top of me, feeling of impending doom... I felt all of that. Can you please just tell me if what happened to me sounds like sleep paralysis? I`m a 20 year old college student. If it is SP, do you have any idea what might have caused this to happen to me?

Answer:

What are you describing is a classic episode of sleep paralysis. You should not feel alone (or worried) as this is extremely common, particularly in your age group. Up to 15-40% of young adults experience this at least once in their lifetime and as many as 5-6% have this occur recurrently.

Sleep paralysis is usually described as the inability to perform voluntary movements either at sleep onset or upon awakening. Individuals often report an inability to speak or move the limbs, trunk or head. While there is frequently a sensation of not being able to breath, breathing is not actually affected. Individuals can recall the event. The episode usually only lasts for seconds up to a few minutes and tends to resolve on its own. Occasionally, the episode will end if the person is touched or spoken to.

Episodes of sleep paralysis can be very anxiety producing, as you point out. Hallucinations, whether hearing or seeing things that are not present, can accompany the event. All-in-all, the experience can be somewhat frightening. Sleep paralysis can be brought on by lack of adequate sleep, keeping an irregular sleep schedule and being under excessive stress. While most of the time sleep paralysis is not associated with other medical conditions, it can be one of the signs of narcolepsy (individuals with this condition are also very sleepy during the daytime).

Sleep paralysis usually first appears in young adults and tends to disappear with aging. It is a benign condition and has no significant consequences or sequelae other than the anxiety it may produce. Aside from reassurance and avoiding situations that may bring on the episodes (if you can pinpoint any), no treatment is usually needed. Practicing good sleep hygiene (see the website), may help prevent additional episodes in those who experience sleep paralysis recurrently.

If you remain concerned about your symptoms, I recommend you discuss your problems with your primary care doctor. They can then decide if referral to a Sleep Specialist is needed for further evaluation.

If you would like further information about sleep disorders or sleep itself, I recommend the American Academy of Sleep Medicine website. In addition to information about sleep medicine, the website also contains a list of accredited Sleep Centers and may help you to locate one nearest you. Good Luck!

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Response by:

Dennis   Auckley, MD Dennis Auckley, MD
Associate Professor of Medicine
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University