Night terrors: causes, mechanism and treatment

Night terrors: causes, mechanism and treatment

Important points Summary
What are the symptoms of a night terror? The main symptoms are uncontrollable screaming and crying, extreme body agitation, profuse sweating, rapid, gasping breathing, eyes wide open but unresponsive, confusion and disorientation upon awakening.
What causes night terrors in adults? The causes may be a genetic predisposition, stress and anxiety, sleep deprivation, a link with other sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, the consumption of substances such as alcohol or caffeine, as well as other factors such as intense physical activity before bedtime or fever.
Consequences of night terrors The consequences include disruption of sleep quality, daytime fatigue, mood disorders, relational tension and risk of injury.
Prevention and management of night terrors Preventive and management measures include sleep hygiene, relaxation techniques, cognitive-behavioral therapies and the Back2Sleep solution (intranasal orthosis) to treat respiratory disorders such as sleep apnea.

What is a night terror?

A night terror is an episode of restless, disturbing sleep that occurs during the deep slow-wave sleep phases, usually during the first half of the night.

๐Ÿ’ก Unlike nightmares, the person doesn't remember the episode when he or she wakes up.

During a night terror, the sleeper appears extremely agitated and frightened.

It can:

๐Ÿ’Š shout,

๐Ÿ’Š cry,

๐Ÿ’Š sweat profusely,

๐Ÿ’Š rapid breathing.

His eyes are wide open, but he does not react to external stimuli.

This intense state of panic usually lasts a few minutes before a rapid onset of sleep.

While night terrors are more common in children, particularly between the ages of 4 and 12, they can also affect adults, often in connection with an underlying sleep disorder such as:

๐Ÿ’Š sleep apnea,

๐Ÿ’Š restless legs syndrome.


Les terreurs nocturnes

What are the symptoms of a night terror?

Uncontrollable screaming and crying

The person shrieks or cries intensely and suddenly, for no apparent reason.

These noisy manifestations are characteristic of nocturnal terror.

Extreme body agitation

The sleeper in bed:

๐Ÿ’Š agitates violently,

๐Ÿ’Š struggles,

๐Ÿ’Š gesticulates,

๐Ÿ’Š seems to be fighting against something invisible.

His movements are uncoordinated and uncontrolled.

Profuse sweating

Excessive sweating and a sweaty forehead usually accompany this nocturnal panic episode.

Rapid, gasping breathing

Breathing becomes like after an intense physical effort:

๐Ÿ’Š wheezing,

๐Ÿ’Š accelerated.

Respiratory rhythm is anarchic.

Eyes wide open but no reaction

Despite the revolving eyes, the person does not react to external stimuli and seems completely disconnected from reality.

Confusion and disorientation on awakening

If the person wakes up during the episode, he or she is disoriented and lost, with no memory of what has just happened.

La terreur nocturne chez l'adulte et l'enfant

What are the causes of night terrors in adults?

Genetic predisposition

Some people seem to have a genetic predisposition to night terrors, which runs in families.

If your parents or grandparents suffered from it, you're more likely to experience it.

Stress and anxiety

Stress, anxiety and mood disorders such as depression are important factors in the development of night terrors in adults.

A stressful or traumatic event can also trigger them.

Sleep deprivation

A chronic sleep deprivation whether by choice or because of a condition such as insomnia, increases the risk of night terrors.

Inadequate sleep quality is also a factor.

Link to sleep disorders

They may be linked to other sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome or sleepwalking.

Treating the underlying disorder often resolves the terrors.

Substance use

Consumption before bedtime can disrupt sleep and promote the onset of night terrors in sensitive adults such as:

๐Ÿ’Š alcohol,

๐Ÿ’Š caffeine,

๐Ÿ’Š certain medicines or drugs.

Other factors

Other elements may also play a role in triggering night terrors in adulthood, such as:

๐Ÿ’Š intense physical activity before bedtime,

๐Ÿ’Š fever,

๐Ÿ’Š certain medical conditions.

Consequences of night terrors

Disruption of sleep quality

Night terrors abruptly interrupt the deep sleep which is essential for physical and mental recovery.

This can lead to:

๐Ÿ’Š chronic fatigue,

๐Ÿ’Š concentration difficulties,

๐Ÿ’Š reduced alertness the next day.

Daytime fatigue

By depriving people of restful sleep, they encourage excessive sleepiness during the day.

This can impair performance at school or work and increase the risk of accidents.

Mood disorders

Sleep deprivation due to night terrors can cause:

๐Ÿ’Š irritability,

๐Ÿ’Š anxiety,

๐Ÿ’Š depressive symptoms.

Mood and behavior are affected.

Relational tensions

Shouting, restlessness and lack of sleep can disrupt the sleep of your partner or family. This creates tension and can damage interpersonal relationships in the long term.

Risk of injury

During an episode of night terrors, the person may get up, wander around and bump into objects without being aware of it, increasing the risk of falls and injuries.

Les contraintes sommeils

Prevention and management of night terrors

Sleep hygiene

Adopt good sleep habits such as keeping regular hours, creating a calm, soothing environment, limiting screens before bedtime, etc.

This helps prevent night terrors.

Relaxation techniques

Practicing breathing, meditation or yoga exercises before bedtime can help reduce stress and anxiety, factors that can lead to night terrors in adults.

Cognitive-behavioral therapies

These therapies aim to identify and modify thoughts and behaviors that are harmful to sleep.

They can help manage the stress and anxiety that cause night terrors.

The Back2Sleep solution, the intranasal orthosis

This intranasal orthosis helps maintain an open airway during sleep.

By treating respiratory disorders such as sleep apnea, it reduces a major risk factor for night terrors in adults.

Discreet and easy to use, it rapidly improves sleep quality.

FAQ on night terrors in adults

Q. What to do during a night terror?

It's advisable not to wake the person during an episode of nocturnal terror, as this could further agitate them.

The best thing is to stay calm by her side, reassure her with soothing words and gentle gestures, and look after her safety to avoid injury.

The crisis will end on its own after a few minutes.

Q. When should you consult a doctor about night terrors?

ย Medical consultation is recommended if night terrors are frequent (several times a week).

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