Night terrors (or sleep terrors) differ substantially from standard nightmares and can be incredibly distressing for the sufferer and their family.
Although night terrors can be genuinely terrifying, they are not normally an indicator of anything more serious and tend to cease of their own accord.
Contents of this article:
You will also see introductions at the end of some sections to any recent developments that have been covered by MNT's news stories. Also look out for links to information about related conditions.
Fast facts on night terrors
Here are some key points about night terrors. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Night terrors are most common in children but can begin at any age.
- Night terrors typically stop without medical intervention.
- Research shows that there may be a genetic component to night terrors.
- An estimated 7 million people in the US have experienced night terrors at some point in their lives.
- Some simple techniques can minimize the impact of night terrors.
- Sleepwalking often accompanies night terrors.
- Night terrors occur in the first few hours of sleep, whereas normal nightmares occur towards the end of a night's sleep.
What are night terrors?
Millions of people of all ages experience night terrors at some point in their life.
Night terrors are nocturnal episodes where the sufferer experiences terror. They may flail their limbs and scream and shout, and bouts are also often associated with sleepwalking.
Night terrors are most common in children, but adults can also suffer from them. A normal attack typically lasts between 30 seconds and 3 minutes, but can be substantially longer.1
Night terrors are unpleasant for all involved, but in general they are not a cause for medical concern.
A study conducted in Norway looking at various parasomnias (a category of sleep disorders) asked 1,000 randomly selected participants if they had experienced night terrors. The results showed that 10.4% of respondents had experienced night terrors at one point in their lives and 2.7% in the last 3 months.2
A similar study was conducted in the UK. Of the 4,972 participants, 2.2% reported having experienced night terrors.3
Extrapolating from these figures, we can estimate that more than 7 million people in the US will have experienced night terrors at some point in their lives.
Symptoms of night terrors
Night terrors differ from nightmares. In a nightmare, the dreamer may wake up, but during night terrors they will usually stay asleep.
This difference is most likely due to the phase of sleep in which night terrors occur. Nightmares tend to happen during rapid eye movement sleep (REM), towards the end of a night's sleep.
In contrast, night terrors occur during the first third of the night during deeper sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep or non-REM sleep.4
The signs of a night terror episode can include the following symptoms:
- Screaming and shouting
- Sitting up in bed or sleepwalking
- Kicking and thrashing of limbs
- Heavy breathing, racing pulse, and profuse sweating
- Dilated pupils and increased muscle tone
- Difficulty rousing from sleep
- Confusion on waking
- Staring wide-eyed (as if awake), but not responding to stimuli
- Aggressive behavior (more common in adults)
- Amnesia of the event (sometimes only partial).
On the next page, we look at the causes of night terrors and how they are diagnosed.