Why Does Sleep Paralysis Occur?

Have you ever experienced a situation where you have just awoken from sleep, but can’t move your body? You won’t be able to talk or move and will have no control over your own body. This is what is known as sleep paralysis. This article explains,

       1. What is Sleep Paralysis
       2. Types of Sleep Paralysis
       3. Why does Sleep Paralysis Occur
       4. Management of Sleep Paralysis

What is Sleep Paralysis 

In a scientific aspect, sleep paralysis is defined as a feeling of consciousness with no capability of controlling voluntary activities in the body. It happens when an individual goes through a transitional period between wakefulness and sleep which can last for a few seconds to minutes.

Most people going through sleep paralysis will find it difficult to speak or move, but some may even experience episodes of choking and difficulty in breathing. Furthermore, sleep paralysis can occur as a symptom of an underlying condition like narcolepsy.

Types of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis can be categorised into two types as follows:

  • Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis or Predormital Sleep Paralysis

This is a type of paralysed sensation experienced when you are falling asleep. During a normal cycle of sleep, your body swings between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) periods. One cycle of REM and NREM sleep will be continued up to about 90 minutes. NREM sleep occurs first and covers up to 75% of the total sleep cycle in which your body relaxes and revitalises. At the end of this period, your sleep will transform spontaneously to the episode of REM which accounts for 25% of the sleep cycle. Here, your eyes will start moving rapidly with muscles relaxed, and if you gain your consciousness at this level of sleep, you will find it hard to speak or move due to hypnagogic sleep paralysis.

  • Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis or Postdormital Sleep Paralysis

This is the type of sleep paralysis experienced when you are waking up from sleep. So, once the sleep cycle is over and you are in between the period of unconsciousness and consciousness, you will experience a hardship to speak or move, owing to a few seconds to minutes of sleep paralysis.

Why Does Sleep Paralysis Occur

Why Does Sleep Paralysis Occur

Accounting for an equal male: female ratio of affected individuals, the commonest age group which sleep paralysis tends to affect is teenagers. This can run in families (inherited) and can also be caused by

  • Lack of sleep
  • Change of the sleep pattern (migration)
  • Stress, anxiety and bipolar disorder
  • Sleeping in uncomfortable places or positions
  • Narcolepsy
  • Night time leg cramps
  • Certain medications and substance abuse

Sleep paralysis does not need to be diagnosed or treated since it cannot lead to anywhere dangerous or fatal. An episode of paralysis will resolve within seconds to minutes, after which you will be completely normal in the aspects of movements as well as consciousness. However, it is advisable to seek medical advice if you experience any associated symptoms such as,

  • Frequent attacks of anxiety resulting in lifestyle change
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS)
  • Inability to function properly during the day time due to disturbed sleep at night.

Your doctor will take a complete history from you about the onset of the first episode, severity, associated signs and symptoms and impact on your life, and will then proceed towards establishing an accurate diagnosis as to whether it’s sleep paralysis or a sign of an underlying pathology like narcolepsy.

You will also be asked to maintain a ‘Sleep diary’ for few weeks, which will help you to regain the ordinary pattern of sleep. Moreover, some individuals will be further examined with sleep or nap studies to reveal any possible sleep disorders.

How Can Sleep Paralysis be Managed

  • Improving sleep habits – Making it a habit to get a comfortable sleep of 6-8 hours/day
  • Treating underlying medical conditions
  • Treating other sleeping disorders such as narcolepsy or night time leg cramps
  • Meditation and lifestyle modifications
  • Stress relief

Image Courtesy:

“Awake at Night” by Alyssa L. Miller (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

About the Author: Embogama

Embogama is a passionate freelance writer for several years. Her areas of interest include general medicine, clinical medicine, health and fitness, Ayurveda medicine, psychology, counseling and piano music