Muscle paralysis is a normal part of sleep, but we are usually unconscious when it occurs. When someone wakes up during this part of the sleep cycle, it is impossible to move. It may even be difficult for some people to breathe during these episodes. Occasional episodes pose no danger, but someone with chronic sleep paralysis should seek medical advice. A sleep study and other diagnostic tests can help diagnose any underlying sleep disorders contributing to the problem.
The REM Sleep Connection
When sleep paralysis occurs as you wake up, it is referred to as postdormital or hypnopompic sleep paralysis. If it occurs as you are falling asleep, it is called predormital or hypnagogic sleep paralysis. Sleep specialists agree that recurring sleep paralysis is related to REM sleep, but not all specialists agree on why the body is paralyzed during this part of the sleep phase. Some argue that REM paralysis is just a way to prevent a person from acting out his or her dreams. Because of the brain changes that occur during REM sleep, an inability to move is not the only symptom of frequent sleep paralysis. Jorge Conesa, PhD says that those who wake up during episodes of paralysis may also experience body pain, tingling, and auditory hallucinations. Some sleep paralysis sufferers even report out-of-body experiences.
It is interesting to note that this sleep disorder is accompanied by alpha waves, which are a sign of relaxed activity in the brain. This type of brain activity only occurs when the mind is able to relax, so sleeping, meditating, and practicing yoga can all activate alpha waves. Some scientists believe that alpha wave states make it easier to relax the body, solve problems, and enhance creativity. Alpha brain wave activity also reduces anxiety, tension, stress, fear, and nervousness. Alpha waves are just one type of brain activity that occurs during sleep.
Sleep occurs in several stages, with stage one producing theta waves in the brain. Theta waves are very slow in frequency and have greater amplitude than the alpha waves produced in other stages of sleep. The second stage of sleep is characterized by phenomena known as K complexes and sleep spindles. K complexes refer to a sudden increase in wave amplitude, while sleep spindles refer to sudden increases in wave frequency. After the first two stages of sleep are complete, you move into stages three and four. During these stages, there is delta wave activity going on in the brain. These are slow, high-amplitude waves that often occur during episodes of sleep talking and sleep walking. Finally, REM sleep occurs. During this stage of sleep, the brain produces a combination of alpha and beta waves. REM sleep is also characterized by a sudden loss of muscle tone, which is what causes someone with sleep paralysis to feel frozen or stuck in place. One sleep cycle usually takes approximately 90 minutes to complete.
Sleep Paralysis Factors
Researchers do not know what causes constant sleep paralysis episodes, but they theorize that a variety of factors play a role in this condition. These episodes seem to stem from increased awareness prior to falling asleep. Sleep environment, psychological state, physiological stress, and anxiety may all heighten awareness prior to the onset of sleep. In some cases, ingesting stimulant drugs may also contribute to heightened awareness just before falling asleep. These are just some of the factors that may cause episodes of sleep paralysis every night:
- Irregular sleep schedule
- Lying on the back during sleep
- Not getting enough sleep
- Substance abuse
- Excessive stress
- Bipolar disorder
- Sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome and narcolepsy
Seeking Medical Help
In most cases, no treatment is needed for sleep paralysis. However, it is a good idea to speak with a medical professional if these episodes keep you awake at night or cause you any anxiety. If these episodes leave you feeling fatigued during the day, this is also a sign that it is time to talk to a medical professional. When you visit the doctor, you may be asked to keep a sleep diary that details all of the symptoms that occur each night. Your doctor will also examine you and evaluate your medical history. A medical professional may also recommend that you visit a sleep specialist or undergo a sleep study to rule out other sleep disorders.
Treating the Symptoms
Since chronic sleep paralysis episodes can interfere with your life, you may need treatment to get the symptoms under control. Some antidepressant medications work on the chemicals in the brain that may contribute to episodes of sleep paralysis. If your sleep paralysis is related to a psychological disorder, therapy or medication may improve your symptoms or reduce the number of episodes you experience. Treating nighttime leg cramps, narcolepsy, and other sleep disorders can also prevent episodes of sleep paralysis from occurring.
Your sleep hygiene has a lot to do with whether you experience frequent episodes of sleep paralysis. Making several lifestyle changes can eliminate this problem or at least lessen its severity. Getting enough sleep and sticking to a regular sleep schedule are two changes that have the biggest impact. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. Since sleeping on your back may make this condition worse, try sleeping on your side or on your stomach. Reduce stress by exercising, meditating, or practicing yoga. Aromatherapy may also reduce stress, especially if you use lavender oil or peppermint oil.
Although sleep paralysis seems like a strange phenomenon, it is actually a fairly common occurrence. Experts estimate that as many as 40 percent of the population may have this condition. If you do not suffer any ill effects from your sleep paralysis episodes, it is likely that you do not need any treatment. If the problem is caused by other medical conditions, or if you have difficulty sleeping because of your symptoms, ask your doctor how to cope with this condition.