All About Paradoxical Insomnia: A Rare Condition Between Sleep and Wakefulness

With paradoxical insomnia, your brain stays alert while your body sleeps.
Most cases of insomnia fit into one of three broad categories: trouble falling asleep, waking throughout the night, or waking too early in the morning. But in rare cases, patients may have another type, paradoxical insomnia, that doesn't fit so clearly within these guidelines.

Patients with paradoxical insomnia often report spending hours lying awake at night, even though, to others, they appear to be sleeping. They overestimate the time it takes for them to fall asleep and underestimate their total sleep time.

Paradoxical insomniacs have an intense awareness of their surroundings throughout the entire night, as if they were awake. They might think they've gone without sleep for days at a time, but with only moderate signs of daytime fatigue.

A surprise diagnosis
Suzy's 7 hours of sleep felt more like 2.
Suzy Watson, 26, was diagnosed with paradoxical insomnia after she answered an advertisement for a sleep trial at a local Chicago university. A loud snorer (to the point where she sometimes woke herself up), Watson believe she was suddenly taking hours to fall asleep and waking up frequently all night long.

"My nights were dreadful," says the marketing manager. "I felt like I was getting about three to five hours of sleep, and those were on 'good' nights. I felt OK during the day, but I did notice that I had a shorter attention span at work, and I forgot things easily—places I'd just eaten, or what movies I'd recently watched were about."

Watson assumed that her sleep study would reveal obstructive sleep apnea, since it ran in the family; her father had surgery to treat his.

At the hospital sleep center, Watson was wired with electrodes on her head and body, belts around her chest and abdomen, and a small clip on her fingertip.

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Lead writer: Gail Belsky
Last Updated: April 15, 2008

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