December 31, 2009

Sleep Paralysis: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Posted in Category : Common Ailments

Sleep paralysis is a form of sleeping disorder that leads to temporary loss of voluntary movements. As you can imagine, this causes extreme anxiety, since the patient finds she is unable to move her body or limbs for several seconds at a time. This “paralysis” can occur either at the start of sleep (hypnogogic type) or right after waking up (hypnopomic type). Physically, sleep paralysis affects the major skeletal muscles. Some patients also report mild hallucinogenic episodes during such an attack, including the presence of someone else in the room or a heavy weight on their chest. Luckily, this disorder does not affect any of the involuntary muscles required for functions such as breathing, so patients are in no physical danger. However, the psychological affects can be unsettling and have a negative impact on the patient’s lifestyle.

As little as a couple of hundred years ago, sleep paralysis was attributed to paranormal events or psychological disorders. However, medical science has yet to identify any particular cause for the condition. There is some evidence that people with anxiety problems are more susceptible to sleep paralysis. This is based on studies that showed over 30 percent of patients also reported panic attacks while awake, while around 15 percent could be diagnosed with panic disorder. Sleep recordings (polysomnograhies) of patients also show disturbance in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the “deep sleep” required for the mind and body to be completely refreshed. Such disturbances in REM sleep are usually due to poor sleep hygiene.

Treatment and Cures

Most cases of sleep paralysis respond well to basic lifestyle measures designed to provide better REM sleep. The most important one is to maintain a regular sleeping schedule. This allows the body to maintain a steady circadian rhythm, which is the natural day-night cycle. Doctors also advise against eating any heavy meals for at least 4 hours before bedtime, since the digestive process keeps the body awake and disrupts relaxation. The old remedy of having a glass of warm milk can help, since it soothes the mind and body. A cup of warm soup or a small snack can provide similar relief. Skipping evening meals is avoidable, since the body will miss the required calories, disturbing the sleep pattern. Exercise is also a great way to get the body ready for sleep, provided it is done at least 2 hours before sleep, allowing the metabolism to come down to normal. Patients with a history of anxiety or panic attacks can also benefit from relaxations techniques such as yoga or meditation.