Sleep Paralysis Overview and Treatment Options

Sleep Paralysis Episodes Can Be Isolated or Frequent

Getty Images

Sleep paralysis is not dangerous and you may experience it once or repeatedly. If this happens to you while you are falling asleep it's called hypnagogia. If sleep paralysis happens upon awakening it's called hypnopompic.

While an episode of sleep paralysis can be frightening at first, it is usually adequate for many people to just understand what is happening and to recognize that it's not something more serious.

As multiple episodes can become distressing, those who experience sleep paralysis more frequently may seek treatment.

Isolated sleep paralysis occurs without any other symptoms and accounts for most cases. 

An Episode of Sleep Paralysis

During an episode of sleep paralysis, you lay conscious yet paralyzed and unable to speak. This inability to move typically lasts from a few seconds to 1 to 2 minutes.

It is rare for another person to notice this and intervene. The episode may end by slowly being able to move or by falling back asleep. Some people suggest that an alerting sound (a noise that wakes you) or another person’s touch can stop it. Others describe sleep paralysis as simply ending suddenly. 

In a recent study published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine, researchers interviewed 156 undergraduate students with isolated sleep paralysis and found:

  • 76 percent were afraid during the episode
  • 15 percent experienced significant distress
  • 19 percent attempted to prevent these episodes
  • 79 percent believed their attempts at prevention were successful

The Aftermath of Sleep Paralysis

After an episode of sleep paralysis, you may feel absolutely exhausted. The experience may be emotionally overwhelming, and some patients wake up gasping or crying.

Other symptoms are sometimes reported, such as a rapid heart rate.

Many people feel crazy or embarrassed after the experience, and may be unwilling to tell others about it. Some are even afraid to fall back asleep.

Sleep Paralysis Treatment

The first treatment step is to avoid potential triggers. Try to minimize sleep deprivation or undue stress, and avoid other triggers such as sleeping on your back. In general, the sleep hygiene guidelines may also be useful.

For those who have multiple episodes and find sleep paralysis intolerable, medications such as a selective serotonin receptor inhibitor (SSRI) may be helpful. You may also need to address other conditions that disrupt sleep, especially psychiatric illness.

Even though sleep paralysis may be frightening, the condition is not harmful when it occurs in isolation, and it will generally resolve on its own. Other treatment options are available if it becomes a recurring problem.

Sleep Paralysis and Narcolepsy

Sleep paralysis can also occur concurrently with the sleep disorder narcolepsy, a chronic neurological condition causing disruption in your brain's ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles.

 

It is one of a group of symptoms for narcoleptics that includes:

For those who have narcolepsy, a unique set of treatments must be considered.

Sources:

Koran, L.M. et al. "Fluoxetine for isolated sleep paralysis." Psychosomatics. 1993;34:184-7.

McCarty, D.E. et al. "A case of sleep paralysis with hypnopompic hallucinations." Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2009;5(1):83-84.

Morton, K. "Paralyzed at Night: Is Sleep Paralysis Normal?" Stanford Sleep & Dreams. 2012.

Spanos, N.P. et al. "The frequency and correlates of sleep paralysis in a university sample." J Res Pers. 1995;29:285-305.

Takeuchi, T. et al. "Isolated sleep paralysis elicited by sleep interruption." Sleep. 1992;15:217-225.

Takeuchi, T. et al. "Factors related to the occurrence of isolated sleep paralysis elicited during a multiphasic sleep-wake schedule." Sleep 2002;25:89-96.

Continue Reading