Parasomnias are events or experiences that disrupt sleep. They happen while a person is sleeping or going between different states of sleep (e.g., while trying to fall asleep or waking up). Parasomnias include disorders like:
The exact cause of parasomnias is not known.
While most people sleep, the nervous system is quiet and messages aren’t sent to the muscles. This is how the body protects itself, so a person doesn’t act out their dreams. With a parasomnia, the nervous system is “turned on” during sleep and messages are sent to the nervous system, muscles, or parts of the brain. Sometimes when this happens, a person acts out their dreams. Other times, the mind tries to make sense of this increased activity and creates experiences with the activity, so a person is “dreaming out their acts”.
Parasomnias happen most often when someone is waking up. They may be triggered by waking up suddenly from a deep sleep. The boundaries between sleep and being awake are blurred and parasomnias can happen during this time.
If someone is sleep walking, they'll suddenly wake up from a deep sleep. While sleepwalking, a person can do complex tasks because there is lots of brain activity like when the person is awake. But, the sleepwalker thinks they're still asleep. Other types of behavior can happen when the nervous system is active. For example, a person might drive somewhere, but not remember doing it for a few seconds or even minutes. In this case, the brain activity looks like the person is sleeping, but they can still do a complex task like driving.
A parasomnia is diagnosed based on your history. You'll need to see your doctor and talk about your sleep. You may then be referred to a sleep specialist.
You might need a sleep study to make sure you don’t have another health problem (e.g., seizures). But a sleep study can’t tell for sure if you have a parasomnia. If you have another type of sleep problem (e.g., sleep apnea), it can make a parasomnia worse.
Most people don’t need treatment for parasomnias. Treatment may be needed if the behaviours:
The treatment depends on the type of parasomnia. It's most important to get good quality sleep. Being sleep deprived may increase how often parasomnias happen and sometimes increasing total sleep time or treating insomnia works well.
Stress may make parasomnias worse. For some people, lifestyle changes or cognitive behavioural therapy works well.
Sometimes medicines like clonazepam, some types of antidepressants, or seizure medicine is used to treat parasomnias. Your doctor will tell you what the best treatment is for you.
Current as of: March 2, 2018
Author: Sleep Health, Alberta Health Services
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