Sleep terrors in adults: How to help control this potentially dangerous condition

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Sleep terrors (STs)—also known as night terrors—are characterized by sudden arousal accompanied by a piercing scream or cry in the first few hours after falling asleep. These parasomnias arise out of slow-wave sleep (stages 3 and 4 of nonrapid eye movement [non-REM] sleep) and affect approximately 5% of adults.1 The condition is twice as common in men than women, and usually affects children but may not develop until adulthood.1

During STs, a patient may act scared, afraid, agitated, anxious, or panicky without being fully aware of his or her surroundings. The episode may last 30 seconds to 5 minutes; most patients don’t remember the event the next morning. STs may leave individuals feeling exhausted and perplexed the next day. Verbalization during the episode is incoherent and a patient’s perception of the environment seems altered. Tachycardia, tachypnea, sweating, flushed skin, or mydriasis are prominent. When ST patients walk, they may do so violently and can cause harm to themselves or others.

The differential diagnosis of STs includes posttraumatic stress disorder; nocturnal seizures characterized by excessive motor activity and organic CNS lesions; REM sleep behavior disorder; sleep choking syndrome; and nocturnal panic attacks. Patients with STs report high rates of stressful events—eg, divorce or bereavement—in the previous year. They are more likely to have a history of mood and anxiety disorders and high levels of depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive and phobic traits. One study found patients with STs were 4.3 times more likely to have had a car accident in the past year.2

Evaluating and treating STs

Rule out comorbid conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea and periodic limb movement disorder. Encourage your patient to improve his or her sleep hygiene by maintaining a regular sleep/wake cycle, exercising, and limiting caffeine and alcohol and exposure to bright light before bedtime.

Self-help techniques. To avoid injury, encourage your patient to remove dangerous objects from their sleeping area. Suggest locking the doors to the room or home, and putting medications in a secure place. Patients also may consider keeping their mattress close to the floor to limit the risk of injury.

Pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. Along with counseling and support, your patient may benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy, relaxation therapy, or hypnosis.3 Anticipatory arousal therapy may help by interrupting the altered underlying electrophysiology of partial arousal.

If your patient is concerned about physical injury during STs, consider prescribing clonazepam, temazepam, or diazepam.4 Trazodone and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as paroxetine5 also have been used to treat STs.


Dr. Jain reports no financial relationship with any company whose products are mentioned in this article or with manufacturers of competing products.

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