Parasomnias Often Under-Recognized, Misunderstood

Research points way to new treatments for sleepwalking, sleep sex, and other parasomnias.

From the WebMD Archives

A woman wakes up to find she has eaten all the butter out of the refrigerator. Across the country, the family of a middle-aged man is startled to find a pile of black coal on their white living room rug in the morning. A sleeping child jerks up in bed and lets out a piercing scream, a look of sheer terror on his face. A wife says "there is no stopping" her husband when he initiates sex in his sleep at least once a month -- during which, she says, he is both more aggressive and more amorous than when he is awake.

Their stories may differ radically, but all these people have one thing in common: They suffer from often misunderstood and under-recognized sleep-related disorders known collectively as parasomnias, their doctors tell WebMD. From sleep eating and sleepwalking to night terrors and sleep sex, "parasomnias are things that go bump in the night -- unusual, out-of-the-ordinary events that occur during sleep or arousal from sleep," says Colin M. Shapiro, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who recently published an article describing 11 patients with sexsomnia in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

Knowledge of parasomnias has exploded in recent years, with new disorders recognized and known disorders reported to occur more frequently than previously thought, says Carlos H. Schenck, MD, senior staff psychiatrist at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center at Hennepin County Medical Center and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Left untreated, or misdiagnosed as psychiatric problems, parasomnias can have dire consequences: The sleepwalker may hurl himself out the window; the sexsomniac may actually rape his or her spouse. The good news, sleep specialists tell WebMD, is that a better understanding of parasomnias' roots has led to new treatments -- and in some cases, even cures.

The Sleepwalking Cure

For years, doctors had no idea what causes even the most common and well-known of the parasomnias, sleepwalking and night terrors. But recently, researchers at the Stanford University Sleep Disorders Clinic found that at least in some children, mild sleep-time breathing problems caused by allergies or swollen tonsils are to blame.