Parasomnia (Sleep Disorder): Symptoms, Causes, Types, and Treatment

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Parasomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by abnormal nighttime behaviors. These behaviors can include anything from sleepwalking and talking to nightmares and night terrors. Parasomnias can be mild or severe. They are usually not harmful, but they can be disruptive to you and your partner.

Parasomnia can affect people of all ages. Parasomnias are divided into four categories: arousal disorders, activity disorders, dissociative disorders, and nightmares. Some sleep disorders can trigger parasomnia, or it can be genetic. People who have obstructive sleep apnea or take sleep medications may experience parasomnia. Parasomnia symptoms include sleepwalking, sleep talking, nightmares, abnormal movements during sleep, and daytime fatigue. Parasomnia is dangerous because a person can injure themselves or others while they are sleepwalking or engaging in another parasomnia behavior.

What is Parasomnia?

Parasomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by abnormal behaviors or activities that occur during sleep. These behaviors can include sleepwalking, talking in your sleep, nightmares, and night terrors. Parasomnia can be caused by a variety of factors. Parasomnia can result from a sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. Parasomnia can also be caused by medications, such as antidepressants or antipsychotics. Some people experience parasomnia because of a genetic predisposition.

Each type of parasomnia has its own set of symptoms. Arousal disorders are characterized by a person becoming awake during sleep but not being able to fully wake up. Activity disorders involve unwanted and often destructive behaviors during sleep, such as sleepwalking or sleep eating. Dissociative disorders are characterized by individuals acting out their dreams while they are asleep. Nightmares are bad dreams that can cause a person to wake up in a state of terror.

The symptoms of parasomnia can vary depending on the type of disorder. Any of these behaviors may indicate parasomnia. It's important to see a doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.

What are the Types of Parasomnia?

Illustration of a Little Girl Having a Nightmare

There are four main types of parasomnia: arousal disorders, activity disorders, dissociative disorders, and nightmares. Each type of parasomnia manifests itself as one of the following symptoms.

  • Sleepwalking
  • Sleep talking
  • Sleep-related groaning
  • Nightmares
  • Night terrors
  • Bedwetting
  • Confusional arousal
  • Teeth grinding
  • Sleep-related eating disorder
  • REM sleep behavior disorder

1. Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking is a common symptom of parasomnia disorder. Sleepwalking involves getting up and walking around while you are still asleep. You may not know what you're doing, and you can injure yourself or others. Because you might not know you're sleepwalking, it may be difficult to diagnose unless someone sees you do it. If you live alone, you may suspect that you're sleepwalking if you wake up outside of your bed. You may even wake up tired or in pain if you bumped into a wall or an object. Sleepwalking is dangerous because you can hit yourself, run into furniture, or run into other people. In extreme cases, people can leave their houses or even jump out of windows. It's important to know that you can wake up a person who's sleepwalking, but with caution. A person sleepwalking can become disoriented and confused if you wake them up while they sleepwalk. Sleep medications and sleep hypnosis can help reduce the chances of sleepwalking, but you should always consult with your doctor first.

2. Sleep talking

Sleep talking, or somniloquy, is when you talk during your sleep without being aware of it. The things you say while sleep talking may not make sense, and you may not remember saying them the next day. Sleep talking can be caused by stress, sleep deprivation, medications, and alcohol. These symptoms are harmless but can be disruptive to your sleep or the sleep of those around you. If you live with someone, they may start to record your sleep talking to understand what you're saying. Sleep talking usually goes away on its own and does not require treatment.

3. Sleep-related groaning

Sleep-related groaning, also known as a hypnagogic or hypnic jerk, is a noise you make involuntarily when falling asleep. Sleep-related groaning is usually just a sound and doesn't mean anything, but it can be disturbing to you or those around you. Sleep-related groaning usually goes away on its own and does not require treatment because it's not dangerous.

4. Nightmares

Nightmares are a common parasomnia symptom. Nightmares are bad dreams that can cause you to wake up in a state of terror. Nightmares can be caused by stress, anxiety, or trauma. You may also have nightmares if you take certain medications, such as beta-blockers or antidepressants. Nightmares can be disruptive to your sleep and may make it difficult to get back to sleep. If you have nightmares often, it may be helpful to see a therapist to talk about the things that are causing your nightmares. Some medications may help reduce the frequency of nightmares.

Boy Having Nightmares Illustration

5. Night terrors

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are a type of parasomnia that involves screaming and intense fear. Night terrors usually occur in the first few hours of sleep, and you may not remember them the next day. They can be very disruptive to your sleep and the sleep of those around you. The causes of night terrors include stress, anxiety, or sleeping in an unfamiliar environment. They can also be caused by medications or alcohol. There is no specific treatment for night terrors. You can try to reduce their frequency by avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed and by going to bed at the same time every night.

6. Bedwetting

Bedwetting, also known as enuresis, is the inability to control your bladder during sleep. Bedwetting can be caused by a variety of factors, such as stress, anxiety, medication, or a structural problem with your bladder. Bedwetting can be embarrassing and frustrating, and it can make it difficult to get a good night's sleep. If you're struggling with bedwetting, there are a few things you can do to manage it. First, you can try an alarm system that will wake you up to go to the bathroom. Second, you can see a doctor to find out if there's a medical reason for your bedwetting. Some medications can help reduce bedwetting, but you should talk to your doctor before starting any new medication.

7. Confusional arousal

Confusional arousal is a symptom of parasomnia. Confusional arousal involves waking up confused and disoriented. Confusional arousal can be caused by stress, sleep deprivation, or medications. Confusional arousal can be very disruptive to your sleep and may make it difficult to get back to sleep. If you have confusional arousal often, it's important to see a doctor to find out the cause. There is no specific treatment for confusional arousal, but you can try to reduce its frequency by avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed. Another way of relieving confusional arousal is by improving your sleep hygiene.

animated image of a kid with sensory processing disorder who can't fall asleep

8. Teeth grinding

Teeth grinding, also known as bruxism, is the habit of grinding your teeth together. Grinding can be caused by stress, anxiety, or a misaligned jaw. Teeth grinding can damage your teeth and disrupt your sleep. If you grind your teeth often, it's important to see a dentist to find out if you need a mouthguard. There are also some lifestyle changes you can make to reduce teeth grinding, such as avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed and practicing relaxation techniques.

9. Sleep-related eating disorder

Sleep-related eating disorder is a side effect of parasomnia. Sleep-related eating disorder is a type of parasomnia that involves eating while you're asleep. A sleep-related eating disorder can be caused by stress, anxiety, or medications. This condition can be dangerous because you may eat things that are harmful to you. If you have a sleep-related eating disorder, it's important to see a doctor to find out the cause. There is no specific treatment for a sleep-related eating disorder, but you can try to reduce its frequency by avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed. You can also practice meditation or other relaxation techniques before bed to improve your sleep quality and reduce the chances of waking up. Sleep hypnosis is another treatment that may help fight sleep-related eating disorders.

10. REM sleep behavior disorder

REM sleep behavior disorder is a type of parasomnia that involves acting out your dreams while you're asleep. Stress, anxiety, or medications can cause REM sleep behavior disorder. REM sleep behavior disorder can be dangerous because you may hurt yourself or someone else while acting out your dreams. If you have REM sleep behavior disorder, it's important to see a doctor to find out the cause. There is no specific treatment for REM sleep behavior disorder, but you can try to reduce its frequency by improving your sleep hygiene. You should also try to relax before bed and practice meditation or yoga to improve your sleep quality.

What are the Causes of Parasomnia?

The causes of parasomnia are listed below.

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Medications
  • Structural problems with your body
  • Substance abuse
  • Neurological conditions
  • Sleep disorders, such as restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea
  • Psychological conditions, such as bipolar disorder or depression

Who is at Risk for Parasomnia?

Certain risk factors may increase your chances of developing parasomnia. Children and older adults are more likely to experience parasomnia. Men are more likely to experience sleep-related disorders, such as sleep apnea and night terrors. Women are more likely to experience sleep-related eating disorders. People with a history of substance abuse or psychiatric conditions are also more likely to experience parasomnia.

Is Parasomnia Seen in Children?

Yes, parasomnia is seen in children. Parasomnia is more common in children than adults. The most common parasomnias in children include bedwetting, sleepwalking, sleep talking, and confusional arousal. Children affected by parasomnias often wake up scared or embarrassed, depending on the specific parasomnia type they experience.

What are the Symptoms of Parasomnia?

The symptoms of parasomnia vary depending on the specific type. However, some symptoms are common to all types of parasomnia. These symptoms are listed below.

  • Sleepiness during the day
  • Trouble staying asleep or difficulty falling asleep
  • Frequent awakenings during the night
  • Nightmares
  • Confusion and disorientation upon waking
  • Hallucinations
  • Inability to remember what happened during the night
  • Sleep paralysis

How to Diagnose Parasomnia?

There is no single test to diagnose parasomnia. Your doctor will likely ask you about your sleep habits and history. They may perform a physical exam and order some tests to rule out other conditions that could be causing your symptoms. These tests may include a sleep study, CT scan, MRI, EEG, and blood tests. You should see a doctor as soon as you suspect you may have parasomnia.

What are the Treatment Options of Parasomnia?

Treatment options for parasomnia vary depending on the type of parasomnia you have and its underlying cause. There are a few treatments that are commonly used for most types of parasomnia. These treatments are listed below.

  • Parasomnia medications
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy for parasomnia
  • Home treatments for parasomnia

1. Parasomnia Medications

Parasomnia medications help control the symptoms of parasomnia and may include sedatives, antipsychotics, or antidepressants. Although you can get some parasomnia medications over the counter, it's best to talk to your doctor first. The most effective medications are prescribed by doctors. You should keep in mind that some parasomnia medications may have side effects that might affect your daily life.

2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Parasomnia

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that can help you change your thoughts and behaviors. This type of therapy can be used to treat several different conditions, including parasomnia. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for parasomnia may be used alone or in combination with other treatments, such as medication.

3. Home Treatments for Parasomnia

Home treatments for parasomnia are commonly used to relieve the symptoms associated with parasomnia. The best way to treat parasomnia at home is to stick to a regular sleep schedule, avoid caffeine and alcohol, exercise regularly, and practice relaxation techniques. Improving your sleep hygiene can help to treat parasomnia at home. You can use home treatments for parasomnia together with medications prescribed by a doctor.

Editor

Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.

She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.

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