Parasomnias

Parasomnias are a group of sleep disorders characterized by abnormal movements, emotions, perceptions and behaviors that are involuntary and occur while a person is asleep. They can be cause for concern because they can cause frustration, familial stress, worry, and in some cases, can be dangerous. There are many different sleep disorders that fall under the umbrella title of parasomnias, ranging from sleepwalking to sleep paralysis, and they all range in seriousness and severity.

Forms of Parasomnia

  • Confusional arousals – seeming to wake up in a confused, frightened state
  • Sleep terrors – much more dramatic version of confusional arousals
  • Sleepwalking – performing regular activities like walking around while asleep
  • Nocturnal seizures – seizures only in sleep, including thrashing, running around, crying
  • Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder – moving around while dreaming, “acting out” dreams
  • Rhythmic-movement disorder – recurrent head banging in sleep
  • Sleep related eating – like sleep walking, but eating unconsciously while asleep
  • Sleep starts – waking up abruptly, sudden jerk of the body upon falling asleep
  • Sleep talking – speaking, usually incoherently in sleep
  • Bruxism (teeth grinding) – grinding the jaw while asleep

How Serious is Parasomnia?

Some forms of parasomnia are relatively harmless, while others can be cause for concern. Sleep disorders such as sleep terror and confusional arousals may seem alarming and frightening to witness, but they are not usually a cause for concern. They tend to resolve themselves, and in children, they decrease as the child grows older. Sleep starts are another harmless form of parasomnia. Most people have experienced the sensation of falling or something similar as they are falling asleep, which abruptly wakes them up. Sleep talking is a perfectly normal, and sometimes entertaining phenomenon.
Parasomnias that should be monitored more closely are things like sleepwalking, nocturnal seizures, REM sleep behavior disorder, rhythmic movement disorder, sleep eating and Bruxism. These parasomnias can also be harmless, but can also cause harm to the sleeper or those around them. For example, a sleepwalker could venture out of the house, a person with rhythmic-movement disorder could hurt their head, and a teeth-grinder can cause tooth damage.

Is There Treatment for Parasomnia?

If you or someone you know is suffering from a form of parasomnia that can be harmful, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. Your doctor can help or recommend a sleep specialist. A sleep specialist can run various tests and studies, some of which require overnight observation, which can tell her/him what exactly is happening in the brain during an episode. Treatment and medications can then be administered if necessary.

What Should You Do?

If you are a parent, you should monitor your child’s sleep disorder. If it’s something like sleepwalking, make sure to keep the doors locked. If you feel very concerned, you should make an appointment with your doctor to see if treatment is needed. If you are an adult suffering from some form of parasomnia, there could be a deeper psychological issue causing the sleep disorder. If you feel you may be depressed, have anxiety, or a stress disorder, you should contact a local psychologist to help you get to the bottom of the issue. Remember many of these parasomnias are pretty harmless, but if you feel concerned for the safety of yourself or a loved one, call your doctor as soon as possible.

View Resources

  • Wikipedia – Wikipedia page describing various parasomnias.
  • SleepDex.org – Descriptions of many sleep disorders and parasomnias.
  • Stanford.edu – Stanford webpage about parasomnias, including REM and NREM parasomnias.
  • MetroHealth.org – A very useful webpage describing many parasomnias, and how a sleep specialist can help.

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