Sleep terror disorder, also called night terrors, is a condition marked by waking suddenly and in a frightened state. For example, a person with sleep terror disorder may wake up screaming and feeling both confused and frightened. In the throes of night terrors, a person may be difficult to awaken fully or comfort, and he may be completely unaware of his environment. Other symptoms of the disorder may include dilated pupils, thrashing and flailing, sweating, rapid heartbeat, and hyperventilation. After about 10 to 20 minutes, the affected person usually falls back into a normal sleep pattern.
No one is sure of the exact causes of sleep terror disorder, but it often seems to run in families. Medical professionals think that fever and fatigue may contribute to it, as well as emotional stress. Many people think of night terrors as a childhood problem, and in fact, they are most common in children, especially boys who are five to seven years of age. However, they also occur in girls and adults. When they occur in adults, emotional stress or consumption of alcohol may be contributing factors.
Symptoms of sleep terror disorder are most frequently noted between 12 a.m. and 2 a.m. When an affected person has an episode, he usually forgets about it and cannot explain it in the morning; some children with the condition sleepwalk as well. Interestingly, nightmares and night terrors differ from each other dramatically. Nightmares often occur in the early morning hours and may be influenced by scary movies and emotionally stressful events. Often, a person will remember nightmares after waking up, and the confusion typical of sleep terror disorder is absent.
Usually, there’s no need for examinations and testing in diagnosing sleep terror disorder. Often, the account of a parent or loved one who has witnessed episodes gives doctors enough information. In cases that are very severe, a doctor may recommend that the patient undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many treatments for night terrors. Often comfort and understanding are the best possible treatments, and counseling may help in some cases. Rarely, medications like diazepam, commonly known as Valium®, are prescribed to reduce episodes. With time, children usually outgrow sleep terror disorder. In fact, episodes are much less frequent by the time most children are 10 years old.