Why do I fight in my sleep?

Why do I fight in my sleep?

Read time: 4 minutes

What’s inside?

  • How our bodies are supposed to behave during sleep.
  • Why doesn’t my body do that?
  • What?!? Yet another sleep disorder??
  • Help! What can I do?


How our bodies are supposed to behave during sleep.

During sleep we go through various phases REM (Rapid Eye Movement), Light Sleep and Deep Sleep. During REM sleep, your eyes move really fast behind closed eyelids, just like they're watching fish darting around a tank. But even though your brain is almost as active as when you're awake, your body shouldn't move much. It’s like your brain put your body on pause so you can dream without acting out all the adventures you’re having in your sleep.

Now that’s what’s supposed to happen.


Why doesn’t my body do that?

If you find yourself… or probably more likely, if your sleeping partner finds you lashing around in your sleep… maybe accompanied by talking incoherently and perhaps assaulting the person next to you… you could (and it is only a ‘could’) be experiencing Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behaviour Disorder (RBD).

RBD is a condition where people physically act out their dreams during REM sleep, the stage of sleep where dreams are typically most vivid. Normally, during REM sleep, the body's voluntary muscles are temporarily paralyzed to prevent the dreamer from physically responding to their dreams.

However, in RBD, this paralysis does not occur as it should, resulting in the person moving, talking, or even yelling and kicking while still asleep.


What?!? Yet another sleep disorder??

Oh, there are many sleep disorders but just having some symptoms doesn’t mean you have anything.

Just as many of us have been diagnosed with sleep apnoea, proper assessments conducted by sleep professionals need to be completed before any disorder can be confirmed and, if necessary, treatment prescribed.

The exact cause of RBD is not yet fully understood. It is often associated with neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease or multisystem atrophy but could also just as likely develop as a simple part of the aging process or in conjunction with changes in brain structure.

Before getting into panic-mode, it’s also important to note it often appears without any clear disorder link at all.


Help! What can I do?

If you suspect you or someone close to you, maybe snoring distance away, may have Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behaviour Disorder (RBD), there are a few sensible steps you can take, including: 

  • Document Symptoms: Keep a detailed sleep diary noting any instances of unusual sleep behaviour such as talking, yelling, kicking, or punching during sleep.
  • Protect yourself and others: If you move around a lot, think about where you could injure yourself first.
    • Are there sharp edges on bedside furniture you could bang into?
    • Are you likely to fall out of bed?
    • What could you do to pad your surroundings to protect yourself first?
    • If you are likely to hit-out at your bed partner, what can you do to protect them?
    • Should you be sleeping in separate beds?
    • Do you need to zip yourself up in a sleeping bag each night?… and yes, it has been done.
  • Consult your main Doctor: Share these concerns and the sleep diary with your family doctor. They can provide an initial assessment, which may lead to a…
  • Referral to a Specialist: The primary doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist or a neurologist who is trained to diagnose and treat sleep disorders like this. This may include…
  • Undergoing a Sleep Study: A sleep specialist might recommend a sleep study, or polysomnography, to monitor sleep patterns, brain waves, and body movements to confirm the diagnosis of RBD. If you have ever undergone one of these assessments for sleep apneoa then you already know what’s coming.
  • Treatment Options: Following diagnosis, treatment could take many forms – including do nothing. If action is needed it can often include precautions to make your sleeping area and partner safer, as outlined above, or may include some form of medication to minimise the experience.

Given these experiences can range from the extremely rare flailing of an arm through to a physical attack like this one, taking these steps could be crucial in avoiding the risk of injury for both the person experiencing RBD and their bed partner.

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