Sleep terrors, also known as night terrors, are episodes of intense fear, thrashing or screaming while asleep. Symptoms of sleep terrors usually have to be seen by someone watching the affected individual sleep. Sleep terrors are most common in children ages 3 to 12 years, but can also affect adults. Children usually do not remember anything about their sleep terrors, but adults may recall a part of the dream they had. During a sleep terror, an individual may sit up in bed, scream, kick and thrash, sweat, and be hard to awaken. Even though sleep terrors seem alarming, they typically do not cause harm to the affected person. Sleep terrors have many causes, including not having enough sleep, stress, fever in children, lights, or even an overfull bladder. They can also be caused by other conditions, such as sleep-disordered breathing (obstructive sleep apnea), migraines and head injuries. Risk factors include having a family history of sleep terrors and having anxiety or depressive disorders.
A diagnosis of sleep terrors is usually made by a doctor based on the description of events. A physical or psychological exam may be used to find conditions that may be causing the sleep terrors. A sleep study (polysomnography) may be ordered if your doctor cannot diagnose sleep terrors based on the description alone, or if a person might have sleep-disordered breathing as the cause. A sleep study is a test that is performed in a sleep lab and uses sensors placed on the head and body to record brain waves, blood oxygen level, heart rate, breathing, and eye movements. Treatment is not usually necessary for sleep terrors, especially if they are infrequent. Treatment options for frequent night terrors include improving sleep habits, decreasing stress and medications. If you or your child is experiencing sleep terrors, talk to your doctor about the most current treatment options.