Night Terrors

What are Night Terrors?

A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but with a far more dramatic presentation. During a typical night, sleep occurs in several stages. Each is associated with particular brain activity, and it's during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage that most dreaming occurs.

Night terrors happen during deep non-REM sleep. Unlike nightmares (which occur during REM sleep), a night terror is not technically a dream, but more like a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep phase to another.

Night terrors typically occur in children but can occur in adults.

What are the symptoms of Night Terrors?

  • Night terrors usually occur 1/2 hour to 3 1/2 hours after falling asleep. Nightmares typically occur during the latter part of sleep, usually during early morning hours. 
  • During episodes people wake up suddenly, sweating heavily, hearts pounding and eyes glazed over, screaming in fear. 
  • They may be unaware of their surroundings and unresponsive to attempts to comfort them. 
  • Generally they do not remember what scared them, but rarely a person will retain a vague image of something terrifying.

How are Night Terrors diagnosed?

In making a diagnosis of Night Terrors, your doctor will ask you about your sleeping habits, how much sleep you get at night, if you wake up at night, and whether you fall asleep during the day. Your doctor will also want to know if you are having any emotional problems or are taking any drugs that may be interfering with your sleep.

Your doctor may also order some tests, including blood tests,  an electroencephalogram (EEG), which is a test to measure brain activity if a seizure disorder is suspected, or and a sleep test called polysomnography (PSG or NPSG).

How are Night Terrors treated?

Night Terrors are typically treated by changes to your sleep environment or sleep routines.  On rare occasions your physician may prescribe medications.