Night terror

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Not to be confused with Nightmare. For other uses, see Night Terror (disambiguation)
Night terror
Classification and external resources
Specialty Pediatrics, psychiatry
ICD-10 F51.4
ICD-9-CM 307.46
MedlinePlus 000809
MeSH D020184

A night terror, sleep terror or pavor nocturnus is a sleep disorder, causing feelings of terror or dread, and typically occurs during the first hours of stage 3-4 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.[1] Night terrors tend to happen during periods of arousal from delta sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep.[2][3][4] During the first half of a sleep cycle, delta sleep occurs most often, which indicates that people with more delta sleep activity are more prone to night terrors.[3] However, they can also occur during daytime naps.[5]

Night terrors have been known since ancient times, although it was impossible to differentiate them from nightmares until rapid eye movement was discovered.[4] While nightmares (bad dreams that cause feelings of horror or fear) are relatively common during childhood, night terrors occur less frequently according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.[6] The prevalence of sleep terror episodes has been estimated at 1%–6% among children, and at less than 1% of adults.[7] Night terrors can often be mistaken for confusional arousal.[2] Sleep terrors begin between ages 3 and 12 years and then usually dissipate during adolescence. In adults, they most commonly occur between the ages of 20 to 30. Though the frequency and severity vary between individuals, the episodes can occur in intervals of days or weeks, but can also occur over consecutive nights or multiple times in one night.[3][5]

Night terrors are a largely unknown phenomenon. This has created a situation in which any type of nocturnal attack or nightmare may be confused with and reported as a night terror.[4]

Signs and symptoms[edit]

The universal feature of night terrors is inconsolability.[8] During night terror bouts, patients are usually described as "bolting upright" with their eyes wide open and a look of fear and panic on their faces. They will often scream. Furthermore, they will usually sweat, exhibit rapid breathing, and have a rapid heart rate (autonomic signs). In some cases, individuals are likely to have even more elaborate motor activity, such as a thrashing of limbs—which may include punching, swinging, or fleeing motions. There is a sense that the individuals are trying to protect themselves and/or escape from a possible threat of bodily injury.[5] Although people may seem to be awake during a night terror, they will appear confused, be inconsolable and/or unresponsive to attempts to communicate with them, and may not recognize others familiar to them. Occasionally, when a person with a night terror is awakened, they will lash out at the one awakening them, which can be dangerous to that individual.[3] Most people who experience this do not remember the incident the next day.[2] Sleepwalking is also common during night terror bouts,[4][9] as sleepwalking and night terrors are different manifestations of the same parasomnia.[4]

During lab tests, subjects are known to have very high voltages of electroencephalography (EEG) delta activity, an increase in muscle tone, and a doubled increase in heart rate, if not more. Brain activities during a typical episode show theta and alpha activity when using an EEG. It is also common to see abrupt arousal from NREM sleep that does not progress into a full episode of a night terror. These episodes can include tachycardia. Night terrors are also associated with intense autonomic discharge of tachypnea, flushing, diaphoresis, and mydriasis.[8] That is, unconscious or involuntary rapid breathing, reddening of the skin, profuse sweating, and dilation of the pupils.

In children with night terrors, there is no increased occurrence of psychiatric diagnoses.[10] However, in adults who suffer from night terrors there is a close association with psychopathology or mental disorders. There may be an increased occurrence of night terrors—particularly among those suffering or having suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It is also likely that some personality disorders may occur in individuals with night terrors, such as dependent, schizoid, and borderline personality disorders.[10] There have been some symptoms of depression and anxiety that have increased in individuals that have suffered from frequent night terrors. Low blood sugar is associated with both pediatric and adult night terrors.[5][11] A study of adults with thalamic lesions of the brain and brainstem have been occasionally associated with night terrors.[12] Night terrors are closely linked to sleepwalking and frontal lobe epilepsy.[13]


Night terrors typically occur in children between the ages of three and twelve years, with a peak onset in children aged three and a half years old.[14] An estimated one to six percent of children experience night terrors. Boys and girls of all backgrounds are affected equally. They usually resolve during adolescence.[14] Sleep disruption is parents’ most frequent concern during the first years of a child’s life. Half of all children develop a disrupted sleep pattern serious enough to warrant assistance of a physician.[citation needed] In children younger than three and a half years old, peak frequency of night terrors is at least one episode per week. Among older children, peak frequency of night terrors is one or two episodes per month. Children experiencing night terrors may be helped by a pediatric evaluation. During such evaluation, the pediatrician may also be able to exclude other possible disorders that might cause night terrors.[14]


Night terrors in adults have been reported in all age ranges.[15] Though the symptoms of night terrors in adolescents and adults are similar, the etiology, prognosis and treatment are qualitatively different. These night terrors can occur each night if the sufferer does not eat a proper diet, get the appropriate amount or quality of sleep (e.g. sleep apnea), is enduring stressful events, or if he or she remains untreated. Adult night terrors are much less common, and often respond to treatments to rectify causes of poor quality or quantity of sleep. Night terrors are classified as a mental and behavioral disorder in the ICD.[16] A study done about night terrors in adults showed that other psychiatric symptoms were prevalent in most patients experiencing night terrors hinting at the comorbidity of the two.[17] There is some evidence of a link between adult night terrors and hypoglycemia.[18][citation needed]

When a night terror happens, it is typical for a person to wake up screaming and kicking and to be able to recognize what he or she is saying. The person may even run out of the house (more common among adults) which can then lead to violent actions.[19] It has been found that some adults who have been on a long-term intrathecal clonidine therapy show side effects of night terrors, such as feelings of terror early in the sleep cycle.[20] This is due to the possible alteration of cervical/brain clonidine concentration.[15] In adults, night terrors can be symptomatic of neurological disease and can be further investigated through an MRI procedure.[21]


There is some evidence that a predisposition to night terrors and other parasomnias may be congenital. Individuals frequently report that past family members have had either episodes of sleep terrors or sleepwalking. In some studies, a ten-fold increase in the prevalence of night terrors in first-degree biological relatives has been observed—however, the exact link to inheritance is not known.[5] Familial aggregation has been found suggesting that there is an autosomal mode of inheritance.[17] In addition, some laboratory findings suggest that sleep deprivation and having a fever can increase the likelihood of a night terror episode occurring.[7] Other contributing factors include nocturnal asthma, gastroesophageal reflux, and central nervous system medications.[17] Special consideration must be used when the subject suffers from narcolepsy, as there may be a link. There have been no findings that show a cultural difference between manifestations of night terrors, though it is thought that the significance and cause of night terrors differ within cultures. Evidence suggests that nightmares and night terrors are more common among women than men.[22]

Also, older children and adults provide highly detailed and descriptive images associated with their sleep terrors compared to younger children, who either cannot recall or only vaguely remember. Sleep terrors in children are also more likely to occur in males than females; in adults, the ratio between sexes are equal.[5] A longitudinal study examined twins, both identical and fraternal, and found that a significantly higher concordance rate of night terror was found in identical twins than in fraternal.[17][23]

Though the symptoms of night terrors in adolescents and adults are similar, their etiologies, prognoses, and treatments are qualitatively different. There is some evidence that suggests that night terrors can occur if the sufferer does not eat a proper diet, does not get the appropriate amount or quality of sleep (e.g., because of sleep apnea), or is enduring stressful events. Adults who have experienced sexual abuse are more likely to receive a diagnosis of sleep disorders, including night terrors.[24] Overall, though, adult night terrors are much less common and often respond best to treatments that rectify causes of poor quality or quantity of sleep.


The DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria for sleep terror disorder requires:[7]

  • recurrent periods where the individual abruptly wakes from sleeping with a scream
  • the individual experiences intense fear and symptoms of autonomic arousal such as increased heart rate, heavy breathing, and increased perspiration
  • the individual cannot be soothed or comforted during the episode
  • the individual is unable to remember details of the dream or details of the episode
  • the occurrence of the sleep terror episode causes clinically significant distress or impairment in the individual's functioning
  • the disturbance is not due to the effects of a substance or general medical condition


In most children, night terrors eventually subside and do not need to be treated. It may be helpful to reassure the child that he or she will outgrow this disorder. Psychotherapy or counseling can be helpful in many cases. There is some evidence to suggest that night terrors can result from lack of sleep or poor sleeping habits. In these cases, it can be helpful to improve the amount and quality of sleep which the child is getting. If this is not enough, benzodiazepine medications (such as diazepam) or tricyclic antidepressants may be prescribed to reduce the occurrence of night terrors; however, medication is only recommended in extreme cases.[25]

Scheduled awakenings[edit]

Scheduled awakening therapy is an option that has been shown to both prevent night terrors and cure night terrors in 9 out of 10 in children.[26] Scheduled awakening therapy involves waking the child from sleep 15–30 minutes before the episodes typically occur to interrupt the sleep cycle and prevent the onset of a night terror.[27] Despite the clinical success of scheduled awakenings, the therapy has not caught on as it is difficult to perform properly and consistently. It is not always clear when to time the intervention since the child may fall asleep at a different time night after night. Also, the child will be fully awake in the middle of the night which can have its own undesirable consequences.


A small study of paroxetine found some benefit.[28] Another small trial found benefit with L -5-hydroxytryptophan (L -5-HTP).[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hockenbury, Don H. Hockenbury, Sandra E. (2010). Discovering psychology (5th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers. p. 157. ISBN 978-1-4292-1650-0. 
  2. ^ a b c Bjorvatn, B.; Grønli, J.; Pallesen, S (2010). "Prevalence of different parasomnias in the general population". Sleep Medicine 11 (10): 1031–1034. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2010.07.011. PMID 21093361. 
  3. ^ a b c d Guzman,, C.; Wang, Y (2008). "Sleep terror disorder: A case report". Revista Brasileira De Psiquiatria 115 (11): 169. doi:10.1590/S1516-44462008000200016. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Szelenberger, W.; Niemcewicz, S.; Dąbrowska, A. (2005). "Sleepwalking and night terrors: Psychopathological and psychophysiological correlates". International Review of Psychiatry 32 (12): 263–270. doi:10.1080/09540260500104573. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Association, published by the American Psychiatric (2000). DSM-IV-TR : diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. (4TH ed.). United States: AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC PRESS INC (DC). ISBN 978-0-89042-025-6. 
  6. ^ American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Facts for Families No. 34: Children's Sleep Problems". AACAP. Retrieved Dec 20, 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text revision ed.). Washington, DC. 
  8. ^ a b Nguyen, B.; Pérusse, D.; Paquet, J.; Petit, D.; Boivin, M.; Tremblay, R. E.; Montplaisir, J. (2008). "Sleep terrors in children: A prospective study of twins". Pediatrics 122 (6): e1164–e1167. doi:10.1542/peds.2008-1303. PMID 19047218. 
  9. ^ Oudiette, D.; Leu, S.; Pottier, M.; Buzare, M.; Brion, A.; Arnulf, I (2009). "Dreamlike mentations during sleepwalking and sleep terrors in adults". Sleep: Journal of Sleep and Sleep Disorders 32 (12): 1621–1627. 
  10. ^ a b "Night Terrors Follow-up - Prognosis". Medscape reference. Retrieved 2013-05-26. 
  11. ^ Blog from Fountia, "Things You Didn’t Know About Night Terrors"
  12. ^ Di Gennaro, G.; Autret, A.; Mascia, A.; Onorati, P.; Sebastiano, F.; Quarato, P (2004). "Night terrors associated with thalamic lesion". Clinical Neuropsychology 115 (11): 2489–2492. doi:10.1016/j.clinph.2004.05.029. 
  13. ^ "Night Terrors - Pathophysiology". Medscape reference. Retrieved 2013-05-26. 
  14. ^ a b c Connelly, Kevin. "Night Terrors". WebMD. Retrieved July 20, 2011. 
  15. ^ a b Bevacqua, B.K.; Fattouh, M.; Backonja, M. (2007). "Depression, Night Terrors, and Insomnia Associated With Long-Term Intrathecal Clonidine Therapy". Pain Practice 11 (1): 36–38. doi:10.1111/j.1533-2500.2007.00108.x. 
  16. ^ "Mental and behavioural disorders". 
  17. ^ a b c d Nguyen, B.; Pérusse, D.; Paquet, J.; Petit, D.; Boivin, M.; Tremblay, R. E.; Montplaisir, J. (2008). "Sleep terrors in children: A prospective study of twins". Pediatrics 122 (6): e1164–e1167. doi:10.1542/peds.2008-1303. PMID 19047218. 
  18. ^ Blog from Fountia, "Things You Didn’t Know About Night Terrors"
  19. ^ Kuhlmann, David. "Sleep Terrors". The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Retrieved July 5, 2011. 
  20. ^ Snyder, D.; Goodlin-Jones, B. L.; Pionk, M.; Stein, M. T (2008). "Inconsolable night-time awakening: Beyond night terrors". Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 29 (4): 311–314. doi:10.1097/DBP.0b013e3181829f4c. PMID 18698194. 
  21. ^ Guzman,, C.; Wang, Y (2008). "Sleep terror disorder: A case report". Revista Brasileira De Psiquiatria 115 (11): 169. doi:10.1590/S1516-44462008000200016. 
  22. ^ Schredl, Michael (April 2011). "Gender differences in nightmare frequency: A meta-analysis". Sleep Medicine Reviews. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2010.06.002. 
  23. ^ Poblano, A.; Poblano-Alcalá, A.; Haro, R. (2010). "Sleep-terror in a child evolving into sleepwalking in adolescence. Case report with the patient's point of view". Revista Brasileira De Psiquiatria 32 (3): 321–322. doi:10.1590/S1516-44462010000300022. PMID 20945027. 
  24. ^ Chen, Laura (July 2010). "Sexual Abuse and Lifetime Diagnosis of Psychiatric Disorders: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis". Mayo Clinic Proceedings. doi:10.4065/mcp.2009.0583. 
  25. ^ Kaneshiro, Neil. "Night Terror". A.D.A.M. Retrieved July 20, 2011. 
  26. ^ Durand, V. Mark; Mindell, Jodi A. (September 1999). "Behavioral intervention for childhood sleep terrors". Behavior Therapy 30 (4): 705–715. doi:10.1016/S0005-7894(99)80034-3. 
  27. ^ Lask, B (Sep 3, 1988). "Novel and non-toxic treatment for night terrors.". BMJ (Clinical research ed.) 297 (6648): 592. doi:10.1136/bmj.297.6648.592. PMC 1834533. PMID 3139223. 
  28. ^ Wilson, SJ; Lillywhite, AR; Potokar, JP; Bell, CJ; Nutt, DJ (19 July 1997). "Adult night terrors and paroxetine.". Lancet (London, England) 350 (9072): 185. PMID 9250190. 
  29. ^ Bruni, Oliviero; Ferri, Raffaele; Miano, Silvia; Verrillo, Elisabetta (2004-05-14). "l -5-Hydroxytryptophan treatment of sleep terrors in children". European Journal of Pediatrics 163 (7): 402–407. doi:10.1007/s00431-004-1444-7. ISSN 0340-6199. PMID 15146330. 

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