What are Night Terrors?

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By Dr Simon Kyle

Night terrors belong to a group of sleep disorders called 'Parasomnias' and are most commonly seen in children between the ages of two to seven years old. Night terrors are less often seen in adolescents and adults but may still occur during periods of deep sleep, in the first few hours of the night, continuing for anything up to 15 minutes at a time.

Parasomnias
Parasomnias include any undesirable physical events or experiences that occur during entry into sleep, within sleep, or during arousals from sleep. They encompass sleep-related movements, emotions, perceptions, dreaming and changes in autonomic nervous system (ANS) functioning.

Parasomnias are relatively common in the general population, occurring in around 4 percent of the adult population and in almost 20 percent of all children and adolescents (Wills & Garcia, 2002). More specifically, Ohayon and colleagues found prevalence rates for night terrors of 2.2% of the general population and 2.2% reported sleep walking.

Symptoms of night terrors
Night terrors are fundamentally different from nightmares, which are relatively common in childhood and are characterized by bad dreams resulting in feelings of terror or horror in the night. Individuals waking from nightmares are often able to describe the contents of their nightmare in considerable detail. Night terrors, in contrast, are likely to result in little or no memory of the episode despite people showing signs of being awake, for example, having their eyes open.

Children having a night terror may be seen to sit suddenly upright or thrash about, they may also shout out, appearing to be in a state of inconsolable, confused panic. Despite being able to move about and even talk, they may not recognize the people around them and can become further agitated if forced to wake up. It is for this reason that people are advised not to try waking those experiencing a night terror unless they are in danger of harming themselves or others. Although it may be difficult to watch someone having a night terror, they are unlikely to remember anything the next day.

What causes night terrors?
It is thought that the likelihood of experiencing night terrors may be increased by any situation or chemical, which increases the quantity of deep sleep. This may include certain medications as well as being 'overtired'. These may also interact with situations in which people are more likely to wake during periods of deep sleep such as sudden or loud noises around them or raised feelings of excitement or worry.

Filed under: Sleep disorders