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Night terrors are more severe than nightmares, where the sufferer will experience complete terror. They generally last anywhere from 30 seconds and up to 3 minutes, but sometimes the episodes can last longer.

From childhood all the way through adulthood, we have all experienced those dreams that frighten us and that is completely normal. Often they are triggered by emotions, something we have seen or heard, or simply they come from some strange place in our brain that we can’t quite figure out.

However, some people, particularly children, suffer from different kinds of bad dreams. These are called night terrors, and although they are not an actual medical problem, they can still be horrific for those experiencing them and those witnessing the episodes.

A study conducted in Norway that questioned 1,000 participants found that 10.4% had suffered night terrors at some point. A further study in the UK that questioned 4,972 participants found that 2.2% reported a history of night terrors. These figures may not seem that high, but when you look at the population size of America for example, this would indicate approximately 7 million people had suffered night terrors.

Those that suffer night terrors almost always also suffer from sleepwalking. It is believed that this is because both events occur during the same phase of sleep. Sleepwalking doesn’t just refer to leaving the bed and roaming around the house, it can also involve sitting up in bed wide-eyed but non-responsive.

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are more severe than nightmares, where the sufferer will experience complete terror. They generally last anywhere from 30 seconds and up to 3 minutes, but sometimes the episodes can last longer. During a nightmare the dreamer will often wake up, but during night terror episodes they stay asleep throughout the duration.

Night terrors and nightmares occur during different phases of sleeping. A nightmare usually takes place during the REM stage of sleep, with is the rapid eye movement phase, towards the end of the sleeping period. A night terror occurs during the period of deeper sleep, the non-REM sleep or slow-wave sleep, which happens during the first third of sleep.

The Symptoms

Symptoms of night terrors can vary, but typically they involve:

  • Shouting and screaming
  • Sleepwalking
  • Sitting upright
  • Thrashing arms and legs
  • Kicking out
  • Rapid pulse
  • Heavy sweating
  • Heavy breathing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Difficulty waking
  • Can be wide-eyed yet still asleep
  • Aggression
  • Amnesia
  • Confusion when woken

What Causes Night Terrors?

There are a variety of possible causes of night terrors, although sometimes it is not possible to identify the exact reason they occur in an individual. Fever can be a contributing factor in night terrors in children, but is less likely to cause them in adults. Some other causes include:

  • Light
  • Noise
  • Full bladder
  • Unfamiliar surroundings
  • Deprivation of sleep
  • Stress
  • Sleepwalking

In some cases, it is believed there may be a genetic component to night terrors. One study found that 96% of sufferers of night terrors could identify at least one other family member that also suffered from them. Another study of identical twins found that if one twin suffered night terrors, the other did as well. However, in twins that were non-identical, it was possible for only one twin to have night terrors.

Another theory involves the thalamus, which is the part of the brain that plays a role in maintaining the cycle of sleep-wake. When functioning properly, it also reduces the signals we receive from our other senses while we sleep. Therefore, if there is an issue with the functioning of the thalamus, there is an increased risk of night terrors.

Diagnosing Nightmares And Treatment Options

Testing And Diagnosis

When night terrors are particularly stressful and terrorizing, they may need to be investigated to try and identify the underlying cause. A doctor will usually start out by asking questions about the terrors and the sleep cycle, and may do some routine blood tests to rule out any physiological problem.

In some cases, the person or child may be referred for a sleep study, where they will stay the night in a special laboratory and be monitored and have certain brain measurements done during their sleep. Typically they look at blood oxygen levels, brain waves, breathing patterns, heart rate, and movements of the legs and eyes. The purpose of this study is to see if there are any specific sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome and apnea.

Treatment Options

There is no specific medical treatment for night terrors unless there is an underlying medical problem.  Night terrors can affect not only the child but also the parent and siblings, as they can disrupt others from sleeping, and it is distressing to see your child going through them.  Here are some ideas on how to help your child get through night terrors:

  • Don’t attempt to wake the dreamer up
  • Hold your child to comfort them
  • Say soft and soothing comments
  • If your child is sleepwalking, carefully direct them back to bed
  • Make sure babysitters and caregivers know what to do
  • Don’t let your child become over-tired

Adults can also suffer from night terrors, but it is not as common as it is with children. However, they can be just as terrifying, and the sleep disruption can have a great impact on your ability to function the next day. Here are a few methods and tips to help you manage your night terrors:

  • Make sure all doors and windows are locked
  • Remove anything that could be tripped over
  • Identify stressors and find ways to manage them
  • Try and get more sleep, even if it means napping in the day time
  • Keep a diary of when the night terrors occur, to try and identify a pattern

When To Seek Help

Although there is no definitive medical treatment, you still need to notify your or your child’s doctor if there contributing factors or effects of the night terrors. When sleep is interrupted regularly, this can interfere with the normal functions of the body, and sleep therapy may be required.

If the episodes are lasting more than half an hour at a time on a regular basis you should inform the doctor. Although the terror is not a danger within itself, there is the risk of harming oneself through the sleepwalking or thrashing about, so if you or your child are suffering night terrors, talk to your doctor and see what options are available. 

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