Sleep Paralysis Disorder – Causes of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis disorder is a serious sleep condition in which the sufferer feels incapable of movement. A person affected with sleep paralysis will usually experience the feeling that they are unable to execute voluntary physical movement at the onset of sleep – the hypnogogic period or just when waking – the hypnopompic period.

Sufferers of paralysis sleeping disorder complain that they are unable to move their legs, arms and trunk upon waking or at falling asleep. In many cases, sleep paralysis may be accompanied with strong dream related mentation, and sometimes even hallucinations. Some people even report the feeling of something or someone applying pressure on their chest.

What is sleep paralysis?

Causes of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis appears to be caused by a short-term episode of muscle paralysis. Fortunately, this sleep disorder does not appear to cause harm to a person’s health. However, people who suffer from sleep paralysis 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 at risk of Sleep Paralysis Disorder

Research has shown that small children are more susceptible to the effects of sleep paralysis, although the condition can also occur in healthy adults.

People who suffer from other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, are much more likely to experience sleep paralysis. In fact, many episodes of sleep paralysis are as a direct result of complications from narcolepsy.

Narcolepsy is another chronic sleep disorder in which a person experiences bouts of uncontrollable daytime sleepiness. One of the main symptoms of narcolepsy is cataplexy which is paralysis experienced without the loss of consciousness. Thus, it is thought that sleep paralysis may be related to narcolepsy, although many people who suffer from sleep paralysis do not have narcolepsy.

What happens during Sleep Paralysis

Status Cataplexus/ Extended Sleep Paralysis

Polysomnography, or a sleep recording, indicates that the body demonstrates a lack of skeletal muscle tone during an episode of sleep paralysis. The brain appears to fall into a REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage sleep more quickly, and sleep tends to take on an overall dissociated nature.

Many times, a person will regain consciousness from a sleep paralysis episode upon being touched or hearing a sound. Sufferers 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 sufferers report considerable success with the ‘shout and roll’ method which 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.

Preventing Sleep Paralysis

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 exercise should be avoided to close to bedtime
  • Avoiding stress, 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.

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.

Anti-depressants have been shown to be effective in preventing episodes of sleep paralysis in some cases. If sleep paralysis appears to be related to cataplexy brought on by narcolepsy, certain tricyclic anti-depressants and SSRIs have also been shown to help.