It's not necessarily harmful—but it's incredibly annoying.

By Morgan Spehar
December 09, 2020
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I was sleeping outside in a tent with a few of my friends one night, when an unearthly moan woke one up from her sleep. We were outdoors, so she thought the sound—which she later described as a drawn-out, frog-like croak—was coming from a wild animal. But the noise was coming from inside the tent, right behind her. She turned around slowly, afraid of what she would find—but she saw that the noise was coming from me.

It sounds like a scene from a horror movie, but the loud moan that came from my body during that camping trip is actually a symptom of a rare sleep disorder called catathrenia, which makes me moan, groan, and hold my breath while I sleep. Luckily, the disorder is pretty harmless, but it can still be quite startling (especially when you're not aware someone is suffering from it). Here's what you need to know about catathrenia—a sleep disorder that, some say, sounds like "the world's worst sex noise."

What exactly is catathrenia?

Catathrenia is a rare chronic respiratory disorder, according to the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Third Edition, although experts disagree on whether it should be classified specifically as a parasomnia (a sleep disorder) or a respiratory issue. Sometimes referred to as “nocturnal groaning,” the disorder presents itself as a long, monotone groan or moan, made involuntarily while the person is asleep.

Catathrenia affects all demographics, but there is some evidence that it is found more often in men than women. The disorder often develops during adolescence or early adulthood. It’s exceedingly rare and likely underreported because the sound is often misdiagnosed as snoring, sleep-talking, central sleep apnea, or another sleep-related breathing disorder.

The groaning differs from snoring, though, because it is made exclusively while exhaling and has a distinct sound, like something is blocking air from escaping the throat. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, the authors shared that, “bed partners generally report hearing the person take a deep breath, hold it, then slowly exhale; often with a high-pitched squeak or groaning sound.”

Found in all stages of sleep, the groaning can be interspersed within periods of normal breathing or it can happen continuously. But, despite the fact that the noises can be quite loud—recorded between 40 decibels (a cricket) and 120 decibels (a chainsaw)—people with catathrenia are often completely oblivious—they mostly find out about their noisemaking when a family member, friend or partner mentions it the next morning, according to the study.

Are there any other symptoms of catathrenia?

Although groaning is the primary manifestation of catathrenia, other physical symptoms can include:

  • Mild hoarseness in the morning,
  • Mild oxygen desaturation during sleep, and
  • General fatigue, or in rare cases, excessive daytime sleepiness

According to the Journal of Clincal Sleep Medicine study, however, the biggest problem that most people face, however, is significant fear of distress to their bed partner.  The nightly concert can cause social embarrassment and can have a negative effect on sex lives and relationships.

Personally, one of my friends told me my groaning sounds like "the world's worst sex noise," and apparently I'm not alone. The study included a participant whose husband described her catathrenia noises as though she was "having an orgasm." Others, say their sleep noises sound like high-pitched squeaks or loud groans.

What causes catathrenia?

Experts aren’t sure what causes catathrenia, but the groaning is thought to originate in the larynx, which houses the vocal cords.

“Whenever you make a sound, it’s because of a vibration of the structures,” Soroush Zaghi, MD, a sleep surgeon at The Breathe Institute, tells Health. “In snoring, what’s vibrating is the back of the throat…but in catathrenia, it’s the vocal cords that are vibrating, so the sound is coming from the voice box.”

One case study, published in the European Respiratory Journal looked at a 29-year-old female with catathrenia. The researchers performed a laryngoscopy on the woman during sleep sedation and found that, while she was groaning, the part of the larynx that connects the lungs and the mouth (called the glottis) almost completely closed. According to the study authors, this showed that the groaning caused by catathrenia used the same mechanics as every day speech, once again linking the vocal cords to the disorder.

But it’s still unclear why people are groaning in the first place. Some believe that catathrenia could be linked to jaw size. Another popular theory among those with catathrenia is that competitive swimming triggers the issue, which would make the most sense for me; I was a competitive swimmer for years and often had trouble holding my breath. Dr. Zaghi believes that catathrenia could be several different disorders with different causes.

Are there any treatment options for catathrenia?

The good news is that while catathrenia may be annoying for a bed partner, it’s pretty much harmless. Like most people with catathrenia, I sleep just fine.

“We know it’s annoying, but we’re not exactly sure how to fix it,” Dr. Zaghi says. “We have some guesses that maybe it’s related to some kind of stress, something therapy or deep breathing exercises might help, but we’re not going to push it too much because honestly we don’t know.”

There are some steps that can be taken for those whose catathrenia is impacting their sleep quality. Lacie Broussard Petitto, APRN, DNP, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Texas Children’s Hospital, recommends sufferers schedule a sleep study to make sure that catathrenia is actually the issue.

From there, Petitto says catathrenia can be treated continuously with a CPAP machine, although positive airway pressure doesn’t work for everyone. For some, asking their bed fellows to wear earplugs or use a white noise machine is the best option.

Catathrenia can have significant impacts on people’s relationships, sleep quality and overall health. Unfortunately, because it’s so rare, catathrenia is an understudied disorder, but I’m holding out hope. With further research, maybe someday I’ll be able to go to bed without groaning, moaning, or sounding like a frog.

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