There are more than 100 sleep disorders, from snoring and sleepwalking to restless leg syndrome and general REM syndromes. While many are common and treatable, there are a few bizarre, heartbreaking disorders that baffle doctors. Here are some of the most bizarre bedtime disorders.
1. Exploding Head Syndrome
The foreboding name of this disorder might bring visions of spontaneous combustion. The reality, thankfully, is less gruesome. Characterized by the hallucination of extremely loud gunfire-like noises during sleep or as it sets in, EHS affects up to 20 percent of the population. Sounds begin suddenly and last for a few seconds but are enough to startle someone awake. They’re sometimes coupled with visual disturbances such as lightning or flashes. Originally thought to be exclusive to the over-50 set, EHS is now known to affect younger patients as well.
2. Sleep Paralysis
As we enter the REM cycle of sleep and begin to dream, our brainstems paralyze our voluntary muscles with a flood of chemicals known as GABA neurotransmitters. This lack of movement prevents us from acting out our dreams, which can be quite dangerous. In other words, being immobilized during sleep is a completely natural part of the act itself.
During episodes of sleep paralysis, there’s a broken connection. The chemicals from our brainstem keep us frozen, but we remain aware of our surroundings. As the brain struggles to reconcile the body’s immobility with its own continued activity, our imagination goes into overdrive.
Those who experience this state are frozen, met with some version of a frightening, shared vision that often include onyx-colored demons and old hags. Though only four percent of the world’s population has been affected more than five times by the disorder, half of us experience at least one episode in our lives.
3. REM Behavior Disorder
The polar opposite of sleep paralysis, REM sleep behavior disorder occurs when the brain fails to properly paralyze the physical impulses attached to our dreams. Sufferers have no internal wiring that tells that makes their bodies stay still. The result can be violent, painful and potentially harmful for not only the sufferer but also those around him or her. (Some have even murdered spouses while trapped in the state.)
Yelling, screaming, lashing out and gesticulations of all kinds are common with sufferers of the disorder, but the scariest part of the disease is that 50 percent of those affected will also suffer from another neurological disorder like Parkinson’s. Fortunately, just one half of one percent of the population suffers from this.
4. Kleine-Levin Syndrome
As we’ve discussed at length, KLS, also known as “Sleeping-Beauty Syndrome,” is a neurological disorder that manifests itself through episodes of hypersomnia, or excessive sleeping. Sufferers may sleep for 24 hours a day, waking only to use the bathroom and take whatever sustenance their illness will allow.
When awake, patients exist in a fugue state, suffering from hallucinations, disorientation and irritability; their only desire is to go back to bed. Apathy is common — they have little desire to engage with the outside world. They may hallucinate, eat excessively and even display uninhibited hypersexuality. Many experience intense sensitivity to light and noise.
The KLS Foundation also lists “reduced understanding of the world” as a symptom. Though patients in between episodes can appear perfectly healthy, recurrences can happen at any time, making responsibilities like work and school impossible for many patients. Approximately 1,000 cases are known.
5. Fatal Familial Insomnia
Sleeping is a universal act, yet no one person goes about it in the same way. Yes, it's partly a matter of personal preference (two large pillows behind my head, one clutched between my knees, please), but we’re also at the mercy of genetics. And fatal familial insomnia is a sad, genetic glitch.
Caused by a mutation of the PRNP gene, this extremely rare genetic condition is one of the most frightening sleep disorders around. Manifesting in middle age, FFI begins as a nagging sleeplessness. Soon, any sleep is impossible: blood pressure spikes, coordination becomes a thing of the past and sweat pours from the patient. Eventually, full-blown dementia precedes coma and death.
Worldwide, just 40 families are believed to carry the genes that cause FFI.