Understanding Sleep Paralysis Disorder

A worried young woman recounts her frightening ordeal: "Once in a while, I’ll awaken from a sound sleep and find that I’m completely paralyzed. I can’t move my hands and legs. I can’t breathe as if there’s a heavy weight resting on my chest. I struggle and try to move, but i really can’t move a thing. I don’t know what to do.

Finally, I get a finger to wiggle and manage to move my hands. I take a deep breath of air, and I’m okay again. I’m telling you, it’s a horrifying experience." The woman is suffering from a sleep disorder known as sleep paralysis.

What is sleep paralysis?

You’re having sleep paralysis if you’re unable to perform body movements either upon awakening (called postdormtal or hypnopompic form) or at sleep onset (called predormital or hypnogogic form). This condition is also known as isolated sleep paralysis and familial sleep paralysis.

Such stimuli as sound or touch may end the episode, which commonly lasts for mere seconds to few minutes. Sleep paralysis may occur in normal people. It may also be associated with cataplexy, narcolepsy, and hypnagogic hallucinations.

What are the symptoms?

A person having a sleep paralysis episode can either experience paralysis and/or hallucinations. Paralysis happens shortly before sleeping or after waking up. In addition to the incapacity to move body parts, the person is also unable to speak and experiences difficulty in breathing. Sleep paralysis is similar to what happens to our body when we’re dreaming.

Our brain prevents our muscles from moving during a dream to avoid possible injuries. If you’re awaken suddenly, the brain may think that you’re still dreaming, thus sustaining the paralysis. A person can also see images or hear strange sounds during sleep paralysis. These images and sounds may be dreamlike, probably causing him or her to think that he or she is still dreaming.

What causes it?

While little is known regarding physiology of sleep paralysis, some experts have identified some potential causes of this condition: increased stress level, irregular schedule of sleeping and naps, sleep deprivation, sudden lifestyle changes, sleeping in supine position or in a face upwards position, and a dream that instantly precedes the episode.

Who gets it?

Sleep paralysis is a somewhat common sleep disorder. Men and women, regardless of age, are affected by it. The number of people suffering from this condition is not known exactly – estimates vary widely from 5% to 40%.

This condition first appears during the teenage years but th occurrence becomes more frequent once you reach the age of 20s and 30s and may persist into your later life. The average age when sleep paralysis first happens is 14-17 years. Those who have relatives that experience sleep paralysis are more likely to have it than people who don’t have relatives suffering from sleep paralysis.