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Sleep and Epilepsy: FAQ

Carl W. Bazil, M.D., Ph.D.

We all know that we think more clearly, react more quickly, and generally perform better after a good night's sleep. Sleep is especially important if you have epilepsy. Most types of seizures are affected by sleep, although the degree varies widely from type to type and patient to patient. The effects of seizures and seizure medicines on the quality of your sleep can make the relationship even more complicated. Let's look at all the different sides of the sleep-epilepsy connection.

Sometimes I jerk in my sleep. Is this epilepsy?

Many strange things can happen during sleep. Many of them are not epilepsy and most are normal:

  • You've probably experienced a sudden jerking (myoclonus) of some or all of your muscles when you were just falling asleep. Perhaps it awoke you with a start. This experience is completely normal and is not epilepsy.
  • Many people (especially children) experience frightening images, sometimes with shortness of breath or screaming. These happen during the deeper stages of sleep and are known as sleep terrors. The person may be very disoriented immediately afterward, which may make it look more like a seizure. Sleep terrors are not epilepsy and rarely require treatment unless they happen frequently.
  • Somnambulism (sleep walking) and bed-wetting also are more common in children than in adults. The person will be totally unaware of what is happening. These are not forms of epilepsy.
  • In restless legs syndrome, a crawling or tingling sensation is felt in the legs when trying to fall asleep. It is relieved only by movement. The jerking that results may be confused with epilepsy. It is not epilepsy.
  • Periodic movements of sleep consist of rhythmic, small movements of one or both legs. This usually does not wake the patient, and so it often does not require treatment.
  • If movements during sleep are very violent, the patient could be suffering from REM behavior disorder. Normally, we are paralyzed while dreaming. In REM behavior disorder, the normal paralysis does not occur and the patient can actually act out dreams. This disorder may need to be treated, but it is not epilepsy.

continue to sleep and epilepsy