Night Terrors- Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

What are night terrors?

Thanks to the movie industry, night terrors are the most known sleep parasomnia there is. Most of us have seen thriller or horror movies, where someone wakes up at night, sitting straight in his bed and starts screaming.

This is not just an invention form hollywood’s movie producers. It is in fact a very common sleeping disorder for children younger than five years. Every fourth kid at this age suffers from the so called night terror, also referred to as sleep terror.

As common as it is for children, as rare it is for older children and adults. The portion of people suffering from this parasomnia decreases with age. Leading to an overall percentage of 6-7% for children in general and only 2% for adults.

But what exactly happens when a person is experiencing night terrors?

First of all night terrors are not simply nightmares, therefore they happen in the deep sleep state, compared to dreams which are mostly experienced in the REM phase. Most of the affected persons wake up in the middle of the night screaming, shouting and punching uncontrollably. While it appears like they just woke up in the midst of a terrible nightmare they are actually still sleeping. This state is an incomplete state of awakening, where the person is partly aroused coming out of the deep sleep state.
Therefore, after this horrifying and shocking incident, most of the people go back to sleep and just remember, if anything, small fractions of the dream.

Signs & Symptoms

There are several symptoms that a person might suffer from night terrors.

First of all the sudden “awakening” in the middle of the night. Some affected persons start to shout, kick and punch, talk nonsense or even cry during this state. It is not recommendable to try to arouse the person experiencing a night terror. On the one hand it is very difficult to arouse them in the first phase, on the other hand they might act violently if touched by another person.

So night terrors can be dangerous for both the person experiencing this parasomnia, as well as the bed partner sleeping nearby.

If aroused from this state, the person acts confused and disoriented. This is due to the fact, that night terrors usually happen in the deep sleep stage, where a sudden arousal from leads to confusion.
Physiological responses accompanying the screaming are often dilated eyes, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing as well as sweating and flushed skin. For children bed-wetting is a common sign either.

Who suffers from night terrors?

As mentioned before every person can experience night terrors. However, it is most likely to occur for children under the age of 5. The older you get the lower the risk to suffer from this parasomnia.

In addition, there are some factors that might influence the likelihood of those:

  • First of all there is the family history. There are several experts saying that you are more likely to suffer from night terrors if other family members did, too.
  • The environment: sleeping in a different room/place or being disrupted by loud noises can also increase the risk of night terrors.
  • Psychological factors such as a depression or having a bipolar disorder.
  • Diseases: some diseases or in particular the side effects of prescribed drugs
  • Alcohol & other drugs: excessive abuse of such increase the risk of suffering from all kinds of parasomnias
  • Other parasomnias: suffering from other parasomnias increases the risk of night terrors

Health Risks

Suffering from night terrors doesn’t have a direct negative impact on your health.

However, since you will most likely experience a lack of sleep, things like daytime sleepiness and difficulties to concentrate the next day are very common. In addition, there is also the risk of hurting both yourself and your partner, which can put a strain on a relationship.
Therefore, we recommend to go see a doctor or specialist, when you are experiencing night terrors as an adult on regular basis.

How do you treat night terrors?

Night terrors mostly occur to young children and passes on its own as time goes by. Therefore, a special treatment is redundant in most cases. Parents, who have children that are experiencing night terrors, should keep an eye on their child to make sure it doesn’t hurt himself.

In the uncommon case, that an adult person is suffering from night terrors, seeing a specialist is recommended. He will probably ask the patient to start a sleep diary, in which symptoms, frequency of episodes and what actions precede those are noted. By doing this the specialist can discover if the night terrors are for instance coming from an increased level of stress and therefore start treating this in a more effective way.

Another option is to do a polysomnogram in which the doctor can discover other parasomnias that might cause night terrors or OSA’s. If by doing so he detects another medical condition, treating this will most likely also solve the problem of night terrors.

Usually this parasomnia is treated by seeing a psychologist which conducts a stress or talk therapy. In rare cases medication is prescribed to treat sleep terrors, however they mostly only treat the symptoms, not the cause, and are therefore short term focused.

In general it should be enough to control your stress levels, keep your sleep hygiene and detect other medical conditions. This is the most important and will have a lasting positive effect, compared to the short term effect of medication.

So don’t freak out if your child suffers from night terrors. It is in fact a very common thing and most likely nothing to worry about. However, seeing a doctor to detect if there are other potential parasomnias or diseases causing the night terrors definitely can’t hurt either.

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