Is This Normal: Sleep Walking, Exploding Head and Other Sleep Disorders

Our bodies do all kinds of weird things. How do you know when to ignore something and when to get to the doctor ASAP? We break down whats normal and what’s not in this occasional series. 

Almost all of us experience a type of sleep issue at some point, whether it’s snoring, insomnia, sleep apnea or something else. Sleep disorders can range from minor, harmless things to something serious that should be discussed with your doctor.sleep disorders

I interviewed sleep specialist Eric Davis, MD, to find out more about some of the sleep disorders he has treated, the ones you should consider normal and when you should be concerned.

Snoring & Trouble Breathing: Sleep Apnea

“It is important to notice the difference between normal snoring and abnormal breathing,” says Davis. “If you briefly stop breathing or gasp for breath while sleeping, this could be an indicator of sleep apnea.”

You may also begin to struggle with a lot of daytime sleepiness. Sleep apnea can be diagnosed with a sleep study.

It’s one of the most common conditions treated at UVA’s sleep clinics. It can be a dangerous sleep disorder if left untreated and lead to heart disease, high blood pressure and even contribute to depression.

Fortunately, there are several treatment options available, including CPAP machines or a new implantable device that helps you breathe while sleeping.

Moving While You Sleep

Have you ever found yourself just drifting off to sleep and then suddenly jerk or feel like you’re about to fall down? This is called a hypnic jerk.

“It is completely normal for this to happen and occurs when your brain is transitioning from being awake to sleep,” Davis says.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is another common sleep movement disorder that affects many people. This disorder can cause problems when trying to fall asleep because it causes an indescribable urge to move your legs.

Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep:

  • Find a cool, dark, quiet place to sleep
  • Stick to a regular sleep & wake schedule
  • Avoid watching TV or using smartphones or devices before bed
  • If you find yourself lying awake for longer than 20 minutes, get up, go to another room and do something boring for a bit then go back to bed

“Restless legs syndrome is pretty common and you don’t need a sleep study to be diagnosed,” Davis says. He recommends treatment if the condition is interfering with your ability to sleep well.

Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking is another common sleep disorder, especially among children. Boys seem to experience it more, and it tends to improve with age. There’s usually nothing to worry about since sleepwalking is not an indicator of any other condition.

If someone in your home is a sleepwalker, it’s important to make your home as safe as possible. It’s only necessary to wake sleepwalkers up if they are putting themselves in harm’s way. Sleepwalking and sleep talking usually don’t require any treatment.

REM Behavior Disorder

REM behavior disorder occurs in people during the REM or dreaming phase of sleep. Most of your body’s muscles are paralyzed while dreaming so you don’t try to act out your dreams. However, patients with this disorder don’t experience this muscle paralysis and end up punching, kicking or flailing around violently while they dream.

This is not normal and can become a concern for a sleeping partner since the violent movements can easily injure them. If you are concerned about REM behavior disorder, visit a sleep specialist to get evaluated.

Sleep Eating & Other Unusual Sleep Behaviors

People can do some strange things while sleeping. Davis sees some patients who do a lot of sleep eating. Basically, the person sleepwalks to the kitchen or pantry and eats during the night without realizing it.

“This behavior can be very distressing to the patient because the extra eating can cause unwanted weight gain,” says Davis. Treatment for sleep eating can be tricky, but Davis always recommends it.

Sleep Paralysis & Narcolepsy

Sleep paralysis is another example. It’s characterized by the feeling of being paralyzed, frozen or unable to wake up from a dream. You may experience sleep paralysis occasionally since it can be caused by stress or sleep deprivation.

However, if it starts to happen more frequently and without a known cause such as sleep deprivation, sleep paralysis could be an indicator of narcolepsy, which is not normal.

“One of the things we’ll ask people that come to our clinic for narcolepsy is, ‘Have you heard a funny joke and collapsed?” Davis says. People with narcolepsy will tend to collapse after a strong emotional response like laughter. “This is not ever normal.”

If you’re also having excessive daytime sleepiness or falling asleep in the middle of doing things, you should talk to your doctor. These types of symptoms may lead to a narcolepsy diagnosis.

Make an Appointment

Are you or is someone you love having trouble sleeping or struggling with one of these sleep disorders? Schedule a time to come talk to our sleep experts. We’ll work together to help you get back to a normal night’s sleep.

Exploding Head Syndrome

Exploding head syndrome is a sleep disorder that I had never heard of before, and it’s somewhat rare (Davis has only seen it in one patient). It’s an intense version of hypnic jerks that people describe as a very loud noise or explosion or the feeling that their head is going to explode.

The disorder is harmless, your head won’t actually explode, but it can be very distressing for those that experience it. Therefore, most patients who experience exploding head syndrome seek treatment.

This is just a portion of the many sleep disorders that exist. If you are having difficulty sleeping or experiencing something that you have questions about, it’s always a good idea to discuss it with your doctor.

Comments (4)

  1. Pat says:

    I have had exploding head symdrome about 4 x in the past two years. It is exactly as it sounds glad to hear it’s harmless but would b interesting to know what causes it to happen

  2. Diane Moore says:

    How do you know if it’s sleep walking ,or focal seizures ? My doctor said I have focal seizures ,another doctor said I was sleep walking.

  3. We shared these comments with Dr. Davis, and here are his responses:

    Exploding head syndrome is classified as a primarily sensory phenomenon although I am not clear as to the exact pathophysiology. There are several theories out there including:
    a) Eustachian tube perturbations
    b) brief temporal lobe complex partial seizures
    c) side effect of medications
    d) calcium channel dysfunction
    e) brainstem neuronal dysfunction during transition from wakefulness to sleep

    In short, I don’t think we know why it happens but these are thought to be possible explanations.

  4. Diane, we shared your question with Dr. Davis and here is his response:

    Great question. Focal seizures tend to manifest as repetitive actions. If you just move your right hand up and down, then I wonder more about seizures. If you sleep walk in an unpredictable pattern, I suspect sleep walking. We often use a sleep study (with a full seizure montage) to differentiate the two if needed.

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