Under the Hood

Are You Violent During Sleep? You May Have This Disorder

While sleep position tends to vary from person to person, differences can also be observed in our behavior when getting some shut-eye. Certain individuals can get a little disruptive and even violent when they are asleep.

Though we do not have the accurate numbers, estimates suggest 1.7 to 2 percent of the population experience violent behaviors during sleep. There have also been a number of criminal cases linked to the phenomenon.

One possible explanation for this is that the person might be "acting out" their dreams by moving around, punching, kicking, or even screaming. Since we dream during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, this condition is referred to as REM sleep behavior disorder.

In a recent study from Canada, researchers tried to figure out what could possibly put a person at risk of the disorder. After analyzing data on over 30,000 participants, a number of factors were identified.

"While much is still unknown about REM sleep behavior disorder, it can be caused by medications or it may be an early sign of another neurologic condition like Parkinson's disease, dementia with Lewy bodies or multiple system atrophy," explained study author Ronald Postuma, of McGill University.

Past research has shown that 38 percent of people with this disorder went on to develop Parkinson's disease, though the link is poorly explained. On average, the disease emerged 12 to 13 years after the onset of the violent sleep symptoms.

In the latest study, people with REM sleep behavior disorder were found more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological distress, or some form of mental illness. Drug use and heavy alcohol intake, especially close to bedtime, could also increase the risk of disturbed or violent sleep. 

"Identifying lifestyle and personal risk factors linked to this sleep disorder may lead to finding ways to reduce the chances of developing it," added Dr. Postuma, who is also a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

Going by age groups, middle-aged adults and older adults are believed to be at highest risk. There also appears to be a gender difference as there have been more documented cases of the disorder affecting men.

Though, it is possible that REM sleep behavior disorder in women goes underreported — they tend to experience less aggressive symptoms even though their sleep may be more disturbed.

If you have experienced these symptoms, it is important to seek treatment as you are at risk of hurting yourself or others around you. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the doctor may prescribe medication to help reduce violent behavior. Patients will also be advised to make their sleep environment as safe as possible. This means removing sharp objects, moving furniture away, and possibly even moving the bed partner to another room.