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Have you ever opened your eyes and felt your heart begin to race because you realize you can’t move?  As your brain tries to determine if you are awake or asleep, panic permeates, causing you to struggle against some unseen force that is holding you captive.  Seconds or even minutes pass before you feel the heaviness that was holding you down, begin to lift.  You blink several times and as the panic recedes, it becomes easier to believe it was just a strange dream.  Maybe it was, but it might also be a condition that affects about  8% of the population.

Categorized as a parasomnia, Sleep Paralysis can occur in almost anyone and is often accompanied by hallucinations.  People who have narcolepsy and cataplexy are more likely to experience this type of parasomnia and researchers believe it may have a genetic component making it hereditary.  Sleep paralysis is similar to the atonia experienced during REM sleep and is believed to result from the mistransmission of neural signals that allows a person to awaken before the brain has sent the signal needed to reactivate muscle function.

Symptoms

When someone experiences an episode of sleep paralysis, they will awaken and be able to open and move their eyes, but won’t be able to move any other body part or speak.  The paralysis can feel as though someone is sitting on the person’s chest or that they are bound to the bed.  In addition to the sensations common with this disorder, many episodes are accompanied by hallucinations that incite panic.  Common hallucinations are the presence of an intruder, pressure on the chest accompanied by a physical or sexual assault, or an out of body experience.

It is more common amongst people with panic disorders, mental health patients, and students.   Many scientists believe that episodes of sleep paralysis explain phenomena like seeing ghosts, and alien sightings and abductions.

Causes

To understand the cause of sleep paralysis, it is helpful to understand how our brain uses paralysis during REM sleep as a protective measure.  When we are in REM sleep, our brain function is very similar to when we are awake.  In order to keep us from running in our sleep when we run in our dreams, our brain sends out signals that basically inhibit muscle contraction.  If a person awakens before the brain has reactivated normal muscle function, sleep paralysis occurs.

Although there is limited research into this disorder, there are some factors that are believed to increase the risk of experiencing both paralysis and the accompanying hallucinations.  These factors include:

  • Sleeping on your back, facing upwards.
  • Stress.
  • Rapid changes in your life including things like moving, new jobs, deaths, or births.
  • Sleep deprivation paired with excessive alcohol.

Treatment

The first form of treatment is to provide a comprehensive education on what causes the episodes of paralysis, the sleep cycle including the different phases of sleep, REM sleep and muscle atonia, and proper sleep habits.  As with other parasomnias, many people who experience sleep paralysis see a significant change in symptoms by following a good sleep hygiene routine.  Anyone who is experiencing ongoing episodes of sleep paralysis should be checked for narcolepsy.

About Valley Sleep Center:

Since 2002, Valley Sleep Center, accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, has provided Arizona with diagnostic sleep disorder testing in a home-like atmosphere, ensuring a comfortable, relaxing experience for patients.  Their Board Certified Sleep Medicine Specialists consist of experienced and knowledgeable physicians who provide expert advice across a multitude of sleep related disorders including insomnia, sleep apnea, snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, hypertension, sleepwalking, and pediatric sleep problems.  They accept most insurance plans as well as Medicare.  For more information contact Lauri Leadley at 480-830-3900; https://valleysleepcenter.com.