Most of our muscles are temporarily immobile when we sleep, and we can’t move except for a small amount of twitching. If kicking in your sleep is a new occurrence, you may not consider it a problem, but it could signify a more significant health issue that worsens over time.
People randomly kick in their sleep due to REM sleep behavior disorder. With this sleep disorder, the individual doesn’t experience temporary muscle paralysis. They’ll kick, punch, shove, and yell in their sleep as they have dreams involving significant movement.
REM sleep behavior disorder can be a precursor to other neurodegenerative diseases or be induced by drug and alcohol use. Because you have no control over your limbs while you’re unconscious, it’s possible to injure yourself or, worse still, the person in bed with you.
Why Do I Keep Kicking in My Sleep?
You most likely have REM sleep behavior disorder if you thrash around while you sleep. This is a parasomnia characterized by intense movements while in REM sleep.
Humans go through 5 stages of sleep, with the REM (rapid eye movement) stage being the final one. During REM sleep, our mind is just as active as when we are awake because we’re dreaming. REM sleep makes up 25% of the time we are asleep.
While in REM sleep, our body experiences atonia, which is a state of temporary muscle paralysis.
Barring any other sleeping disorders, we can only move the muscles that help us:
- Move our eyes
- Digest food while we sleep
No matter how intense our dream may be, we cannot move around due to atonia. If you have REM sleep behavior disorder, you do not experience atonia while sleeping.
While the brain is active, it sends signals throughout the body to move as if you’re fully conscious. This causes you to move around in real life as you dream.
What Does REM Sleep Disorder Look Like?
People with REM sleep behavior disorder will often kick about as they have vivid dreams of:
- Fighting someone
- Running away
- Getting injured
Besides kicking, people that suffer from this sleep disorder also:
- Jump out of bed
- Grab things
REM sleep behavior disorder disturbs your sleep, and people get hurt unconsciously due to the following:
- Thrashing about
- Falling out of bed
- Banging their limbs
This can happen multiple times a night if you go back to sleep each time you wake up, so you never truly get a good night’s rest.
What Causes Kicking During Sleep?
People develop REM sleep behavior disorder as a precursor to neurodegenerative diseases like:
- Lewy body dementia
- Multiple system atrophy
It can also be caused after:
- Taking anti-depressant SSRIs
- Having a history of traumatic brain injury
- Long-term use of drugs and alcohol.
Dangers of REM Sleep Disorder
According to Sleep Medicine, there’s an 81% chance for older men to eventually develop Parkinson’s or dementia after being diagnosed with REM sleep behavior disorder.
REM sleep behavior disorder occurs when the body’s unable to induce skeletal muscle atonia. This means that the body paralysis associated with REM sleep doesn’t happen.
Failure to induce atonia is related to a dysfunctional subcoeruleus complex, a cell population in the pontine tegmentum. That part of the brain plays an important role in movement and sleep-wake regulation.
Given that what prohibits atonia is brain cell dysfunction, it’s no surprise that people with REM sleep behavior disorder are often exposed to environments or engage in behaviors where brain damage is a risk, such as the following:
- Alcohol abuse
- Drug abuse
- Long-term exposure to pesticide
- Risky working environments (welding, construction)
Medically-induced REM sleep behavior disorder is common in younger patients under the age of 40 that take anti-depressants. Researchers have theorized that it’s not the anti-depressants that cause REM sleep behavior disorder.
According to McGill University, they bring out the disorder in people who already show signs of prodromal neurodegeneration. The symptoms of neurodegeneration include:
- Color vision abnormalities
- Memory loss
- Minor motor impairments
What Is A Parasomnia?
Parasomnia is any sleeping disorder that disrupts a person’s sleep.
Parasomnias can occur before or during sleep, and they’re grouped based on what stage of the sleep cycle they occur. The two main stages of the sleep cycle are:
- Non-REM sleep
- REM sleep
Non-REM sleep occurs during the first half of the night, and disorders associated with this stage often involve vocalization and physical activity.
The people most affected by non-REM parasomnias are under 25 and those with a family history of sleeping disorders.
A person with a non-REM sleeping disorder either doesn’t remember or partially remembers what occurred during the episode. Non-REM parasomnias include:
- Night terrors
- Sleep-related eating disorder
- Sleep talking
- Bruxism (teeth grinding)
REM sleep parasomnias are sleep disorders that occur during the second half of the night when a person is in REM sleep. During REM sleep, your:
- Eyes move rapidly under your eyelids
- Breathing and heart rate speed up
- You begin to dream
REM sleep parasomnias include:
- REM sleep behavior disorder
- Frequent nightmares
- Hallucinations (visual, tactile, auditory)
- Sleep paralysis
REM Sleep Behavior Disorder vs. Sleepwalking
REM sleep behavior disorder and sleepwalking are often confused because both involve involuntary physical activity while the person is asleep.
However, they’re both different sleep disorders that occur during different sleep cycles and are caused by different brain activity.
Dysfunctional brain cell clusters in the pontine tegmentum cause REM sleep behavior disorder. This dysfunction inhibits atonia, allowing the brain to send signals to the body’s muscles. This causes sudden, violent movements while the person is dreaming.
REM sleep behavior disorder occurs exclusively during the REM sleep stage, and episodes tend to occur only when the individual has nightmares.
Sleepwalking occurs during non-REM sleep and is characterized by complex behaviors. These complex behaviors usually involve sitting upright in bed and looking around before walking around the house.
Other complex tasks include cooking, picking up objects, and climbing out of windows. A sleepwalking episode usually lasts around 15 minutes and can be triggered by several factors, including:
- Drinking alcohol before bed
- Sleeping in a new environment
Another big difference between REM sleep behavior disorder and sleepwalking is the individual’s reaction after waking up. Someone with REM sleep behavior disorder will usually wake up without a problem and remember their dream partially or entirely.
A sleepwalking person will have trouble waking up and can sometimes react aggressively when disturbed during an episode. Most people don’t remember what they were doing while sleepwalking.
REM Sleep Behavior Disorder vs. Night Terrors
REM sleep behavior disorder is a REM sleep disorder that involves physical movement while the individual is dreaming. However, night terrors occur during the first third of the night and involve frequent, vivid dreams that leave the individual terrified, anxious, and disoriented.
These two disorders are mainly confused because people with REM sleep behavior disorder may also wake up in a panicked state.
However, while many people with REM sleep behavior disorder may be affected by nightmares, people that experience night terrors don’t thrash about while they dream.
With night terrors, any sudden movements occur after the person wakes up. After waking up, the individual is usually in a state of panic for 30-90 seconds.
Here, they may be too confused to control their actions.
How Common is REM Sleep Behavior Disorder?
REM sleep behavior disorder is an uncommon disorder that affects less than 1% of the population.
The disorder is reported to mostly affect men aged 50 and up. However, women with REM sleep behavior disorder often go undiagnosed for various reasons.
Women tend to have less violent movements when affected by REM sleep behavior disorder. The disorder may go unnoticed because women hurt themselves and their bed partners less than men.
Older women tend to outlive their male partners. Because the disorder is often noticed by the bed partner first, if the woman doesn’t have one by the time she begins displaying disordered behavior, she may never find out she suffers from it.
Not much is known about women with REM sleep behavior disorder because most studies center around men. However, according to Sleep Medicine, the disorder is diagnosed more equally when looking at younger women with different dysfunctions.
While REM sleep behavior disorder is associated with Parkinson’s and dementia in men, it’s associated with autoimmune diseases and anti-depressants in women.
Although it’s extremely rare, children can also be affected by REM sleep behavior disorder. REM sleep behavior disorder in children is associated with narcolepsy type 1, anti-depressants, and, less commonly, brain tumors, autism, and ADHD.
How to Stop Kicking in Your Sleep
If you have REM sleep behavior disorder and kick in your sleep, prescription medication is the best way to treat it. REM sleep behavior disorder precedes neurodegenerative disorders like dementia and Parkinson’s. So, it’s best to see a doctor immediately after displaying symptoms.
A general physician can refer you to a sleep clinic, where a specialist will screen you for REM sleep behavior disorder, and you’ll undergo various tests.
Some patients may be asked to:
- Fill out a questionnaire
- Keep a sleep journal
- Undergo a sleep study in a clinic
- See a neurologist
The most common medication used to treat REM sleep behavior disorder is low doses of benzodiazepines. Benzos are psychoactive drugs that lower brain activity; it works so well in treating REM sleep behavior disorder because it’s a depressant that suppresses muscle activity.
Remember that using benzos to treat this disorder is based on studies primarily focusing on older men. Little is known about how the treatment could affect women with induced REM sleep behavior disorder due to anti-depressants or autoimmune diseases.
Are There Natural Remedies for REM Sleep Behavior Disorder?
It is said that melatonin can treat REM sleep behavior disorder. However, more research needs to be done to ensure that the results are not a case of a placebo.
According to Sleep Medicine, melatonin therapy reduces severe REM sleep behavior disorder symptoms. It is often considered an alternative remedy when benzos can’t be prescribed.
Melatonin works so well because it’s a hormone released at night that helps the brain control the sleep-wake cycle. Exposing the brain to more of this hormone helps the person sleep better. A healthier sleep cycle means fewer nightmares, leading to less panicked physical movement while sleeping.
You likely kick in your sleep due to a sleeping disorder. While not always harmful, there are serious risks to consider, which is why it’s recommended that you consult with a doctor.