Sleep Paralysis. What Can Be Done About This Frightening Problem?

If you find that your body is paralysed as you fall asleep or as you wake up from sleep, you may be experiencing sleep paralysis.

Doctors call sleep paralysis as you fall asleep the hypnogogic or predormital form, and if it occurs as you wake it’s called the hypnopromic or post dormital form. It has other names but sleep paralysis is the most common.

It’s something that has been around for thousands of years as people have reported it as being ‘possessed by witches or demons’ because of its symptoms. There are many different names for it in different cultures – for example ‘old hag’ because of the witch thought to sit on the sleeper’s chest; ‘kokma’ in the West Indies for the ghost baby who jumps on the chest; ‘kanashibari’ in Japan and ‘gui ya’ in China also reflect the frightening and ghostly aspect of the symptoms.

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What are the symptoms of sleep paralysis?

People who experience this problem say that they:

  • Have episodes where they can’t move their bodies or limbs as they fall asleep or as they wake.
  • These episodes may last for a few moments or several minutes.
  • They may be broken by someone touching the person or by a sound.
  • May also have times when they have hallucinations – sensations of noise, taste, terror, floating, having a weight on the chest, a feeling of suffocation or impending death, seeing intruders – or dream-like ‘thinking’.
  • If a sufferer has a sleep study done the brain wave patterns show dissociated REM sleep, which means the body and brain become ‘disconnected’, which is what’s though to leave the body paralysed.
  • A loss of muscle tone may also be seen on the sleep study which is another reason you can’t move.

Should I worry about sleep paralysis?

It was once thought to be quite a rare problem but now experts believe that up to half of all people will experience it at some time in their lives.

Although it can be terrifying, sleep paralysis is not thought to be a serious condition in itself as it is self-limiting and you come out of it spontaneously. The memory of the paralysis and the frightening sensations/hallucinations that go with it can stay with you for some time after.

If you find that these episodes are making you afraid to go to sleep and you’re suffering from ill health because of it, then talk to your doctor. A course of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) may help you take back control.

Sleep paralysis is often associated with people who have narcolepsy– a sleep disorder where a person has uncontrollable urges to sleep during normal daily activities. However many people who don’t have narcolepsy have sleep paralysis and it may run in families.

What causes sleep paralysis?

There is some disagreement about its cause – Stanford University says there is no known cause and experts at MedicineNet.com say it happens as a result of the brain not passing through the stages of sleep in the usual way. No one knows quite why the brain does this though.

It has been found to be more common in people who are shift workers or have jet lag (circadian rhythm disorders).

Sleep paralysis treatment.

The easiest way to treat the problem is to:

  • Make sure you get enough sleep – 8 hours a night is recommended for adults.
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day (including weekends).
  • Reduce your stress levels – seek professional help, do yoga/meditation/exercise, keep a journal for example.
  • Exercise regularly but not too near your usual bedtime.

If you find you’re having sleep paralysis for at least 1 night each week for 6 months or more, drug treatment may be appropriate.

Ritalin or Methlylin are usually used for treating children with ADHD but may also be useful for narcolepsy or problems with sleep regulation. Talk to your doctor as this drug has serious side effects if not taken with care and as prescribed.

Sonata is used for insomnia and may be useful. It also has side effects that your prescriber will discuss with you.

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