Sleep Paralysis: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
Sleep paralysis, the inability to move or speak immediately after waking up, happens when a person wakes up before REM sleep is finished.
Credit: Oleg Golovnev/Shutterstock.com

Sleep paralysis is the inability to move or speak immediately after waking up. This can be an exceptionally scary time for those afflicted with this weird phenomenon, but despite former beliefs, the feeling of paralysis is not caused by supernatural beings.  

During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep the brain has vivid dreams, while the muscles of the body are essentially turned off. While sleeping, the muscles are unable to move so that the person won't be able to act out dreams with their body. Sleep paralysis happens when a person wakes up before REM is finished. The person will be conscious, but the body's ability to move hasn't been turned back on yet. 

Several things can bring on episodes of sleep paralysis. For example, sleep deprivation, some medications and some sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea are triggers. Also, sleep paralysis is commonly seen in patients with narcolepsy, said Dr. Shelby Harris, director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at the Montefiore Health System in the Bronx, New York.

According to a study in 2011 by Pennsylvania State University, 7.6 percent of the general population has problems with sleep paralysis. People with mental disorders such as anxiety and depression are more likely to experience sleep paralysis. According to the study, 31.9 percent of those with mental disorders experienced episodes.

Those afflicted with sleep paralysis are often unable to move their bodies or speak immediately after waking up. This can last one to two minutes, according to the Mayo Clinic. People experiencing sleep paralysis may also feel a weight on their chest or a choking feeling. 

In the past, it was believed that demons caused sleep paralysis by holding people down or sitting on their chest. This was often due to hallucinations, which are a common symptom during sleep paralysis because the brain is still in a dream state. People have reported seeing ghosts, demons and other strange apparitions while experiencing paralysis.

For most people, there is no treatment for sleep paralysis. The key is prevention and the treatment of any underlying causes. 

After one episode of sleep paralysis, it may not be necessary to get a doctor's appointment right away. "If you have rare episodes of sleep paralysis, but haven’t been seen by a sleep specialist, make sure your sleep hygiene is solid. For example, sleep paralysis can be a sign that you’re sleep deprived," Harris told Live Science. Harris suggested that those experiencing sleep paralysis should make sure to get enough sleep on a regular basis, avoid alcohol, nicotine and drugs all night, starting three hours before bedtime. They should also limit caffeine after 2 p.m. and keep electronics out of the bedroom. 

"If these things don’t help, and you’re having episodes that are becoming somewhat more frequent, see a sleep specialist to see if there’s any underlying medical disorder that might be causing the sleep paralysis," Harris said.

According to the UK National Health System (NHS), sleep paralysis is not dangerous, though those experiencing extreme sleep paralysis may be prescribed a short course of antidepressant medication, such as clomipramine.

During the attack it is important to stay calm and realize that it will pass soon. "There’s not much you can do during an attack besides say to yourself, 'This is only temporary. It will pass very shortly and I will be able to move soon,'" Harris said. "This really only works if you’ve had an episode or two before and know what to expect. These attacks can be quite scary to experience, especially if you’ve never had one before." 

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