Ask The Doctor

Sleep Terrors Can Be A Real Nightmare

Dear Dr. Garner,

I have the strangest problem. I wake up at night scared and sweating. I often scream at my husband when sleeping. I have no idea why. I don’t remember having a nightmare.

I am afraid to go to sleep and it’s interfering with my job as I am always tired and under a lot of stress.

My husband says that I sleepwalk and make these big motions with my hands, banging on the bed almost every night. He is afraid to sleep with me.

This is very frustrating. Is there anything you can think of?

Sleep terrors in

Sheepshead Bay


Dear Sleep Terrors,

Before discussing your question, I would like to recognize the passing of Joe Stile. He was an amazing individual who accomplished so much in his 97 years.

Whether church matters or hospital issues, Mr. Stile was always there, either serving on boards or merely stepping in and offering his expertise.

He was a loyal viewer and reader of “Ask the Doctor.” Those who knew him feel lucky for having met him. May he rest in peace.

And I am very sorry to hear about your sleep problem. The issue must be evaluated before you hurt yourself or your spouse.

Sleep terrors are very rare (also known as night terrors) and affect only a small number of children, and an even smaller number of adults. In adults, they most commonly occur between the ages of 20 and 30.

Sleep terrors are different from nightmares. One who has a nightmare usually wakes up from the dream and may remember details. The person who has sleep terror episodes remains asleep during the scary time, and has no recollection of a dream.

Symptoms that occur during the sleep terror are shouting, kicking, thrashing, heavy breathing, being inconsolable or exhibiting aggressive behavior in which you may hit your partner. They may be associated with sleep apnea and sleepwalking.

In your case, the sleep terrors are disrupting your lifestyle and are coming at a frequent pace. Stress, fever and sleep deprivation may be the main culprits that precipitate these terror attacks. There are several sleep disorders that can occur with abnormal breathing patterns during sleep. The most common is sleep apnea, where the person actually stops breathing. This can lead to heart attacks, high blood pressure and even death. In addition, other conditions that we’ve covered in previous articles include restless leg syndrome, migraines, head injuries and some medications.

Sleep terror events tend to occur in families. Some of the complications that can occur include excessive sleepiness during the day and injury to family members.

I suggest that you keep a sleep diary to help your doctor understand the quality of sleep you get and how bad the sleep terror is. Make sure to tell your doctor all medications you are taking, and if possible, bring your partner to discuss your sleep habits. Your doctor will probably order a sleep study, a test used to evaluate conditions such as sleep apnea. It requires spending a night in a sleep lab, which may not be attractive but can be critical to making a diagnosis.

Some questions your doctor may ask include: How often does the sleep terror occur? Have there been problems in the past? Does anyone else in your family have this? These questions will help your doctor understand the nature of the process.

It is helpful to improve sleep habits. Stress and anxiety may be an underlying reason for the problem. Medications are important to list as the problem may be a side effect of medication. It is important to make the sleeping environment safe. This includes locking the doors or placing alarms and bells on the doors to prevent the person with sleep terrors from falling down the stairs when leaving the room.

Sleep terror episodes may resolve on their own, but it requires a methodical approach which includes an evaluation of sleep habits, underlying medical conditions, medications and possible harmful effects. Be sure to see your physician.

Dr. Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET TV, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Time Warner Channel 97, Cablevision Channel 30 and Verizon FiOS on Demand.

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