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Sleep Terrors Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Eve G Spratt, MD, MSc; Chief Editor: Caroly Pataki, MD  more...
 
Updated: Jul 06, 2016
 

History

Sleep terror is characterized by a sudden arousal from non–rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep (usually from slow-wave sleep) and associated autonomic and behavioral manifestations of fear. Commonly, patients let out a piercing scream, followed by fear, crying and inconsolability. In adults, agitation is often seen. Significant autonomic hyperactivity is present, with tachycardia, tachypnea, flushing, diaphoresis, and increased muscle tone.

The patient is routinely unresponsive to external stimuli and, when awakened, is confused, disoriented, and amnestic regarding the event. It should be cautioned that confrontation of an individual during an episode may be dangerous, in that the individual may become violent. Incoherent vocalizations or micturition have been reported to accompany the event.

Because sleep terror events are relatively common and many affected individuals have family members with similar experiences, many families may not seek medical attention. When the episodes cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, the diagnosis of sleep terrors advances to the diagnosis of NREM sleep arousal disorder, sleep terror type.[1]

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Physical Examination

No specific physical findings or signs are expected during a routine physical examination when the individual is awake. Several conditions that may be associated with sleep terror occurrence may demonstrate distinct physical abnormalities (eg, tonsillar enlargement). These findings are not consistent for all individuals who experience sleep terrors and are frequently noted in individuals with no recognized sleep terror occurrences.

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Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

Eve G Spratt, MD, MSc Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Division of Developmental Pediatrics, Medical University of South Carolina; Director, Pediatric Consultation Liaison Psychiatry, Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital at Charleston

Eve G Spratt, MD, MSc is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Coauthor(s)

Katherine Harris, MD Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine

Katherine Harris, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Caroly Pataki, MD Health Sciences Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Caroly Pataki, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, New York Academy of Sciences, Physicians for Social Responsibility

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Martha Karlstad, MD Chief Resident, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Acknowledgements

Mark Anderson, MD Lt Col, United States Air Force, 75th Medical Squadron

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Kevin P Connelly, DO Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Division of General Pediatrics and Emergency Care, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine; Medical Director, Paws for Health Pet Visitation Program of the Richmond SPCA; Pediatric Emergency Physician, Emergency Consultants Inc, Chippenham Medical Center

Kevin P Connelly, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians, and American Osteopathic Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chet Johnson, MD Professor and Chair of Pediatrics, Associate Director, Developmental Pediatrician, Center for Child Health and Development, Shiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies, University of Kansas School of Medicine; LEND Director, University of Kansas Medical Center

Chet Johnson, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose

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