Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 14, 2014

Health Corner

The stranger in my room

Late last night, at around three in the morning, I awoke from my sleep. I was terrified. I lied there in bed, sensing someone standing over me, watching me – in the darkness.

I tried to move my head – just a little – so I could get a slight glance without him noticing, but I could not. I tried to sit up – to move my arms and legs – but I was frozen in place! I could not even struggle, absolutely nothing would move! I was completely paralyzed! Or was I tied down?  Had this stranger tied me down and I never woke up or felt it? Sheer panic flooded me. My heart was pounding out of my chest, as I lay there, unable to move.

What’s happening? Why can’t I move? I try calling out, to scream, but nothing... Even my voice is gone! And this man – this person…

Quite some nightmare, huh? I’m sure most of us have had one or two of these types of nightmares in our lifetime – I have. And they’re definitely scary. (The one described above is just an example; I didn’t really have that nightmare last night.)

Once you awaken from this incident, your heart is racing, and you’re so uneasy, you have to get a drink of water or sit in another room for a while to calm your nerves.

Sometimes, as in my case, these are mere occasional nightmares, but for some people, they are much more. It’s a condition called sleep paralysis, and millions of people suffer from it. For some, it’s an every night happening – sometimes two or three times in one night.

The good news is that, although quite frightening and disturbing, it’s not a dangerous health problem. There are causes for sleep paralysis, as well as treatments for prevention.

More good news – sleep researchers agree that, in most cases, sleep paralysis is simply a sign that your body is not moving smoothly through the stages of sleep. Rarely is sleep paralysis linked to deep underlying psychiatric problems.

The definition of sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Some people may also feel pressure or a sense of choking. Sleep paralysis might accompany other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, which is an overpowering urge to sleep caused by a problem with the brain’s ability to regulate sleep.

Sleep paralysis usually occurs at one of two times. If it occurs while you’re falling asleep, it is called hypnagogic, or predormital, sleep paralysis. If it happens as you’re waking up, it’s called hypnopompic, or postdormital, sleep paralysis. Big words, I know, so let me explain.

Hypnagogic sleep paralysis (predormital): as you start to drift off to sleep, your body relaxes. You become less aware of objects and noises in the room. However, if you remain alert or aware, you might notice that you cannot speak or move your body.

Hypnopompic sleep paralysis (postdormital): During sleep, your body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. One cycle of REM and NREM sleep lasts about 90 minutes. NREM sleep occurs first and takes up to 75 percent of your overall sleep time. During NREM sleep, your body relaxes and restores itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep shifts to REM. Your eyes move quickly and dreams occur, but the rest of your body remains very relaxed. Your muscles are “turned off” during REM sleep. If you become aware before the REM cycle has finished, you might notice that you cannot move or speak.

Both men and women, of any age, can have sleep paralysis. Sometimes it runs in families. Sometimes it’s caused by lack of sleep, schedule changes, stress, bipolar, PTSD, or other mental conditions, narcolepsy, medications, substance abuse, leg cramps, and various other factors.

If you find that you’re unable to move or speak for a few seconds or minutes when you’re falling asleep or waking up, you could just be having isolated sleep paralysis, which is very common and usually does not require treatment. However, if you’re having more severe problems, and sleep paralysis is preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep and is disrupting your daily routine, you might want to check with your doctor. There are things that can be done to help.

Sleep tight!

Some information from www.WedMD.com; www.mayoclinic.com; www.narcolepsyfoundation.com