Pavor nocturnus is the literal translation of night terrors from Latin. For centuries, people assumed night terrors were related to demonic possession. It wasn’t until rapid eye movement was discovered that doctors could knock this theory down. Often, night terrors are confused with nightmares, but they both occur at different parts of the sleep cycle, thus making them completely un-relatable. Night terrors are a sleep disorder in which a person suddenly wakes from sleep into a horrified state. (NY Times Health 1) Just like any sleeping disorder, there are many different symptoms, causes, risk factors, and treatments.
To differentiate between a nightmare and a night terror, an understanding of sleep patterns must exist. When a person falls asleep, they sleep deeply with their brain relaxing into deep non-REM sleep, which can last from 45-75 minutes. After this amount of time they transition to a lighter sleep, this is all apart of an orderly sleep pattern. Some people do not make the transition between these sleep stages as regularly. They may get caught between sleep and wakefulness; this sleep disorder is what can cause night terrors. (Hirshkowitz 248) Nightmares occur during REM sleep, unlike night terrors, and occur during dreams. The sleeper has no disorientation upon awakening, does not sleep walk, and their heart rate does not increase. It is important for a person to be able to distinguish between the two, as night terrors can be extremely dangerous.
Doctors and researchers don’t have a straight answer for the exact cause of night terrors, “Doctors do know that the underlying biological mechanism of night terrors is the over activation of the sympathetic automic nervous system, but no one knows for sure what causes this over activation. A tendency definitely exists for the condition to run in families, but researchers haven’t yet identified the gene associated with such attacks.” (Hirshkowitz 250) These attacks are more common in children than adults, researchers say about three percent of children suffer from night terrors, less than thirty-six percent of these continue into adolescence, and even less in adults. (Carranza 37) There are few factors that have been proven to cause a night terror such as sleep deprivation and being off your regular sleep schedule. Other factors such as stress and anxiety have been known to provoke as well. In limited occasions, a night terror can develop from a traumatic experience. Most commonly found in instances with children, a fever can cause them.
Signs of night terrors are tense and particular. If a person experiences the following, they are more than likely having a night terror; a racing pounding heart, profusely sweating, an increase in blood pressure, vicious body movements, eyes wide open (or closed), and sleep walking. Upon waking up, the person has poor memory of the episode. An episode can be dangerous for the person experiencing it and those around them. The fight or flight response is activated, “which means when someone feels like he’s in mortal danger, his brain can engage in heightened abilities for fleeing and defending.” (Hirshkowitz 25), which causes the violent body movements and thrashing. If someone were to try and intervene, it is possible they could get hurt. Knowledge of these symptoms can help a person understand what they are going through.
There are few risk factors of night terrors. As explained with symptoms, a person can seriously hurt themselves or others due to sleepwalking or violent body movements. “Although not common, people in the throes of an attack have been known to suffer fractures, contusions, and large cuts. If the bedmate attempts to intervene in the episode, she may get injured, not intentionally, but simply out of the unreasoning fear felt by the person experiencing the terror episode.” (Hirshkowitz 251) As with sleep walking, it is safer to avoid any attempts at waking the person up. Other risk facts include extreme daytime tiredness from lack of sleep, which can affect a person who works or goes to school during the day. Night terrors may require treatment if they cause issues such as hurting the sleeper or bedmate and getting enough sleep.
Due to the fact doctors and researchers haven’t discovered the straight answer for the cause of night terrors, there isn’t a straight answer for treatment. Doctors may suggest a family member or bedmate to support to the person suffering from an episode. Since sleep deprivation is a cause, a person should try to get as much sleep as possible to reduce them. Minimal stress and anxiety will help. Making sure the environment around the sleeper is safe can reduce accidents, “Accident-proof the bedroom to minimize risk of injury to the sleeper, and secure all doors and windows to keep the sleeper from getting outside.” (Hirshkowitz 252) There is no drug treatment available but to reduce episodes, some doctors suggest taking a sleep inducing medicine.
Night terrors affect both children and adults and can leave a person exhausted and fearful which is extremely serious. Millions suffer from these unpleasant problems. It is important to be knowledgeable of the symptoms, causes, risk factors, and treatments of night terrors mostly because they can happen to anyone. Knowing the differences between night terrors, nightmares, and other hallucinations can assist in determining what a person is suffering as well.
Hirshkowitz, Max. Sleep Disorders. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing 2004.
Carranza, Christopher Raoul. Banishing Night Terros and Nightmares. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp. 2004.
"Night Terror Overview." NY Times Health. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/night-terror/overview.html?print=1>.