Introduction 

Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak that happens when you're waking up or, less commonly, falling asleep.

Although you're awake, your body is briefly paralysed, after which you can move and speak as normal. The paralysis can last from a few seconds to several minutes.

Sleep paralysis doesn't cause you any harm, but being unable to move can be very frightening.

Some people have sleep paralysis once or twice in their life, while others experience it a few times a month or more regularly.

Sleep paralysis can affect people of all ages, but it's more common in teenagers and young adults. Men and women are equally affected.

Read about the symptoms of sleep paralysis.

What causes sleep paralysis?

It's normal for your muscles to be paralysed at certain times when you're asleep. Sleep paralysis occurs when the mechanism that causes your muscles to relax during sleep temporarily persists after you've woken up.

Sleep paralysis can sometimes be a symptom of narcolepsy. This is a relatively rare sleep disorder, which causes severe disruption to the sleep-wake cycle. An inability to stay awake for more than three or four hours is usually the main symptom.

Other things that increase your risk of getting sleep paralysis include:

  • sleep deprivation
  • irregular sleeping patterns
  • age  it's more common in teenagers and young adults

Read more about the causes of sleep paralysis.

Getting help

If you have sleep paralysis, your GP may be able to suggest ways that you can improve your sleep, such as keeping to a regular sleeping routine and creating a restful sleeping environment.

If your symptoms are severe or possibly linked to another sleep-related condition, such as narcolepsy, your GP may refer you to a sleep disorder specialist (see below).

Treating sleep paralysis

The symptoms of sleep paralysis can often be improved by altering your sleep habits and sleeping environment.

Sleep paralysis often affects people who are sleep deprived, so ensuring you get enough sleep may reduce the number of episodes you have. Most adults need six to eight hours of good quality sleep each night.

Going to bed at roughly the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning may also help.

Read more about how to improve your sleep habits.

See your GP if your sleep paralysis is particularly severe. They may refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist.

A short course of antidepressant medication, such as clomipramine, may be prescribed to treat severe sleep paralysis.

Read more about treating sleep paralysis.

Page last reviewed: 19/11/2014

Next review due: 19/11/2016