Sleep Disorder Can Cause Bizarre, Terrifying Behavior In Patients

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — David Morehead would kick in his sleep while he was dreaming.

“Both legs, both feet, as hard as I could kick,” he describes. “Most of the time I was fighting with someone, or it was anger.”

This was a symptom of a sleep disorder — REM sleep behavior disorder.

Your body cycles through REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep every 60-90 minutes, with most of it occurring later in sleep. Its function isn’t clear, but normally during REM, a phase associated with dreaming, you muscles are paralyzed. But for some people, something goes wrong.

“REM sleep behavior disorder, patients abnormally will move, and will act out dreams,” says Dr. John Euhan Lee, a sleep specialist at Canonsburg Hospital. “A common complaint people have is that they’re kicking, or punching, or fighting.”

It can be quite serious.

“I have seen patients who will punch through the wall at night, and end up with broken bones,” says Dr. Lee, “I have seen patients who have hit their spouse, and caused physical harm, not anything on purpose, but just a manifestation of the disorder.”

“I sat up on my knees in bed and punched the wall at the head of the bed as hard as I could in the midst of a deep dream. And I do remember that, because my hand hurt,” says David. “I landed right here, on this tile floor, out of bed, diving for a football, a fumble in a football game.”

No one knows why it happens, though in some cases it can be traced to sleep medication, antidepressants, or alcohol. There is a link with certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, but the two do not always occur together. It can also be seen along with other sleep disorders.

David, for example, also has sleep apnea, a problem where he stops breathing while asleep. He was also evaluated for restless leg syndrome, which occurs during non-REM sleep, just like sleep walking and sleep talking.

“Those are what we call non-REM parasomnias,” says Dr. Lee.

A sleep study can show a person being active during REM sleep. Luckily, the disorder responds well to treatment, such as a sedative called clonazepam or high dose melatonin, a sleep hormone.

Also bedroom safety is part of the treatment plan — moving the bed away from the window, and moving lamps and other objects away from the bed.

With medication, David is doing better.

“I don’t have as much movement, and as much action,” he said.

More from Dr. Maria Simbra

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