Sleep Paralysis Causes: Why You Might Be Awake but Cannot Move

Myths surround sleep paralysis, a type of sleep disorder and the sleep paralysis causes make interesting reading. Most revealing is the fact that, it is relatively common in the general population and more frequent in students and psychiatric patients 

What is sleep paralysis? 

There are several types of cultural interpretations of this disorder ranging from alien abduction during sleep to incubi and succubi. Even in the 19th Century novel Moby Dick, the principal character Ishmael experiences sleep paralysis in the form of evil presence in the room, etc. But what is the medically relevant definition of this condition, and more importantly what are the sleep paralysis causes?

It is defined as a temporary inability to move during transition to and from sleep and wake. It may last for a few seconds to several minutes and could be accompanied by hallucinations.

Psychologists at University of Pennsylvania define the condition as “a discrete period of time during which voluntary muscle movement is inhibited, yet ocular and respiratory movements are intact.” It could happen to healthy individuals or could be associated with narcolepsy, cataplexy and hypnagogic hallucinations (occurring just before sleep onset where the individual is fully aware of the nature of the images).

Sleep paralysis is linked closely to normal muscle weakness (hypotonia) that happens during REM sleep. There are two disorders that are associated with it: migraine and narcolepsy.

Sleep paralysis causes: roots embedded in REM sleep 

We might be able to understand the disease condition better as well as locate the reasons for the onset once we are familiar with the different sleep cycles. What happens during normal sleep? Initially, we sleep light, but gradually progress into deeper stages. After 90 minutes of falling asleep, we enter the first light phase, called the REM or Rapid Eye Movement phase. This is also the stage when we dream. Throughout the night we alternate between REM and non-REM sleep cycles. Both light and deep sleep is called non-REM sleep.

What happens with narcoleptic patients? These individual directly enter the REM sleep stage and throughout the waking hours, short bouts of REM keep recurring. It is during REM phase that dreams occur and our muscles are paralyzed. This makes it clear as to why narcolepsy is associated with sleep paralysis, hallucinations and other debilitating symptoms.

What are the sleep paralysis causes? 

Factors that are considered to increase the chances of both sleep paralysis and hallucinations are:

–          Sleeping with face upwards

–          Increased stress

–          Abrupt changes in lifestyle or environment

–          Lucid dream that precedes an episode

–          Excessive consumption of alcohol along with lack of sleep.

Though this condition is first noticed during the teen years, it can develop at any age. It typically occurs with a sleep disorder and happens during the first two hours of sleep. It is the inability to perform voluntary muscle movement during sleep.

While narcolepsy is the sleep disorder that sleep paralysis is most commonly associated with, even those not affected by narcolepsy can develop the disorder. Sleep paralysis causes are usually linked to people with:

–          Anxiety disorders

–          Bipolar Illness (manic depressive illness)

–          Depression

–          Post-traumatic stress disorder.

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