Sleep paralysis disorder is a serious sleep condition in which the affected person feels incapable of movement. A person suffering from sleep paralysis will usually experience the feeling that they are unable to execute voluntary physical movement at the onset of sleep (sometimes referred to as hypnogogic), or just upon waking (the hypnopompic period). Sufferers of sleep paralysis complain that they are unable to move legs, arms, or trunk upon waking or at falling asleep. In many cases, sleep paralysis may be accompanied with strong dream-related mental activity, and sometimes even hallucinations. Some individuals report the feeling of something or someone applying pressure on their chest.
Sleep paralysis appears to be caused by short-term episodes of muscle paralysis. Fortunately, this sleep disorder does not appear to cause harm to an individual’s health. However, individuals who suffer from sleep paralysis disorder often report feeling frightened at not being able to move, and experience considerable stress at not knowing when the effects of a sleep paralysis episode will subside, or when a new episode will occur.
Who is more likely to experience sleep paralysis? It appears that small children are more susceptible to the effects of sleep paralysis, although the condition also appears in healthy adults. Individuals who suffer from other sleep disorders, especially narcolepsy, are much more likely to experience sleep paralysis. In fact, many episodes of sleep paralysis are the result of complications from narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder in which an individual experiences bouts of uncontrollable daytime sleepiness. One of the main symptoms of narcolepsy is cataplexy, or paralysis experienced without the loss of consciousness. Thus, it is thought that sleep paralysis may be related to narcolepsy, although many individuals who suffer from sleep paralysis do not have narcolepsy.
What exactly happens to your body during an episode of sleep paralysis?
Polysomnography, or a sleep recording, indicates that the body demonstrates a lack of skeletal muscle tone. The brain appears to fall into a REM stage sleep more quickly, and sleep tends to take on an overall dissociated nature.
What should you do if you find yourself experiencing a sleep paralysis episode? Many times, a person will regain consciousness from a sleep paralysis episode upon being touched or hearing a sound. Some individuals report that freedom of movement returns moments after awakening, once full consciousness has been restored.
Some doctors assert that one of the best methods of regaining consciousness during a sleep paralysis episode is to slowly attempt to move the outer edges of your body, beginning with blinking your eye, looking around the room, or fluttering your eyelashes. It is also recommended that you move your fingers. If this gentle approach does not seem to work, some individuals report considerable success with the “shout and roll” method. The shout and roll method consists of vocalizing as loud as you can while rolling your shoulders. Many sleep paralysis patients report ‘snapping out’ of an episode by sheer physical will.
Many people find that the prospect of future sleep paralysis episodes causes undue stress, and interferes with their ability to achieve restful sleep. While there are no cures for sleep paralysis, certain precautions can be taken to help prevent future episodes. Sleep paralysis can be prevented by getting enough sleep every night, going to sleep at the same time each night, following a regular exercise regime (although patients should avoid exercise near bedtime), and avoiding stressors, especially in the hours before bedtime. Many sleep paralysis patients report success with changing their sleeping position. This simple adjustment has been proven to help reduce the frequency of sleep paralysis episodes. Sleep paralysis appears more frequently while individuals sleep on their backs. Sleeping on one’s side appears to be the best position for avoiding sleep paralysis episodes, although it is recommended that patients experiment with different sleeping positions. One isolated sleep paralysis event is one thing, but if a person experiences weekly sleep paralysis episodes for six months or more, their condition may be described as severe. Severe cases of sleep paralysis may be treated with medication. Antidepressants have been shown to be efficacious in preventing episodes of sleep paralysis in some cases. If sleep paralysis appears to be related to cataplexy brought on by narcolepsy, certain tricylic antidepressants and SSRIs have been shown to help.