Catathrenia – Are You Making Strange Noises While Sleeping?

a woman who can't sleep because of the man's noiseJust when you thought you were dropping off to sleep, your partner irritably shakes you awake. A conversation along these lines takes place:

‘You’re making those weird noises again!’

‘What noises?’

‘You know, with that horrible groaning sound that goes on for ages. I can’t sleep with you doing that…’

If this sounds familiar, it could be that you’re suffering from catathrenia.

What is Catathrenia?

Sometimes known as nocturnal groaning, catathrenia is a rare sleep disorder which falls under the category of sleep-related breathing disorders.

Interestingly, up until 2013 it was classified as a parasomnia rather than a breathing disorder. But it was then moved to the breathing disorder category in the most recent International Classification of Sleep disorders manual – ICSD-3.

People who have catathrenia will typically breathe in deeply while sleeping. They then hold their breath for a short while. When they breathe out if may sound like a long groaning, moaning or shrieking noise.

The noise can last from a few seconds up to a minute. And at the end of the groan they might make a secondary noise like a snorting, or they might also wake up.

The noise made can be very loud, and for some people can even sound like a sexual noise. This can be quite disturbing or annoying for other people in the household who hear it, not to mention embarrassing for the person making the noise.

Catathrenia usually occurs during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, though can occur in other sleep stages. Most people report it happening later in the night, which mirrors the fact that there’s more REM sleep later on during sleeping.

People who have catathrenia will usually experience it for many years, and during this time will in many cases experience it most nights. And unless their partner can sleep through the noise, it can become an on-going source of frustration for both people.

Some researchers in fact suggest there could be sub-types of catathrenia, for example depending on whether the noise made on each out-breath is short or long.

What Catathrenia isn’t

catathrenia and snoring are not the same thingCatathrenia could be confused for other sleep disorders or heath issues. So it’s important to understand that it isn’t any of the following:

  • Related to snoring. The easy way to tell the difference is that snoring usually takes place on the in-breath, whereas catathrenia takes place during the out-breath.
  • Related to exhalatory snoring (which seems like it contradicts the first point). The noise in this kind of snoring is also made on the out-breath. However, the distinction is that only with catathrenia does the person hold their breath after they breathe in.
  • Sleep apnea. Even though both disorders involve a pause in breathing, there’s a key difference. With apnea the pause happens after breathing out; with catathrenia the pause happens after breathing in.
  • Stridor, which is a potentially dangerous condition where a person lets out a high pitch sound due to a constriction of the airways.
  • Related to sleep talking. Despite the fact that sometimes people can make a very strange sound, it isn’t the same as sleep talking.
  • Moaning which occurs during epileptic seizures.
  • Related to any other breathing disorder.
  • Related to any dream states or mental suffering.

When diagnosing catathrenia a medical professional would want to rule out the above possibilities, particularly the more threatening conditions like apnea, epilepsy and stridor.

What causes catathrenia?

As with many sleep disorders the exact cause of catathrenia is still in debate among the medical and scientific community. There have been various theories put forward, including:

  • Obstruction or restriction of the upper airway.
  • During REM sleep, the vocal chords may partially close off. A forced out-breath then takes place to push through this closure and unblock the vocal chords.
  • Damage to brain structures that control breathing.
  • There have also been suggestions it’s connected to high stress levels.

Unfortunately, there’s a lack of studies that have been done to work out the exact causes. Since Catathrenia is usually more of a social problem than medically dangerous, researchers are for the most part focused on sleep disorders which can be harmful.

Despite the lack of consensus as to the cause, it does appear that many researchers believe it’s an obstruction or restriction of the airways that causes catathrenia.

Medical treatment

Many people don’t even realize they have catathrenia until a partner or someone sleeping in their house tells them about the noise. The first step is of course to identify that it isn’t a different sleep disorder.

Talking with a medical professional or having a sleep study conducted is the best way to make sure catathrenia is identified correctly.

You may be diagnosed purely from your history and reported symptoms. Otherwise you may be asked to have a polysomnogram, which is an over-night sleep study.

Following this there are 2 ways of looking at treatment:

  1. Should the sufferer look at ways to address the problem?
  2. Should the person who is being disturbed find ways to block out the noise?

For actual treatment of the patient, it seems either an oral device or a CPAP machine are currently the main options, with surgery also a possibility.

In 2008, a study at Standford University of 7 catathrenia sufferers found that a Continuous Positive Airways Pressure (CPAP) machine helped resolve the nocturnal groaning for all 7 people.

A CPAP machine delivers air gently through the nose to keep the airways open. Interestingly, it’s normally only used by people who have Sleep Apnea.

In that study though, 5 people also chose to have surgery later on. And of the 4 people that reported back later to the researchers, 3 needed an oral device as well.

It might sounds like it was quite an ordeal for those in the study, but the good news is that all 4 were eventually cured of the catathrenia.

And more recently in 2012, researchers gave 4 people from their group of 10 catathrenia sufferers a CPAP machine, finding that all of them has significantly less moaning events.

Blocking the sound

It seems then that using a CPAP machine is currently the most successful treatment offered. However, not everyone is comfortable with using one for years on end.

One alternative is for people who are being disturbed by the noise to take action. Wearing sleep earplugs could help in some circumstances, though possibly not if the sound being made is extremely loud.

I’ve also heard suggestions of using a white noise machine to mask the sound. This is unlikely to work though if you’re in the same bed. It might help if you’re hearing it from another bedroom in the same house, but not if you’re right next to the person making the sounds.

So if you’re unable to find ways for you and anyone else living with you to cope, or are concerned that you might have a different sleep disorder, you may find seeking medical advice a good first step.

Readers’ tips

Several readers have commented to say that they found raising their pillows helped stop the groaning sounds. I haven’t seen this published as a recommended treatment, but it’s great that readers think it helps.

One or two have also offered the suggestion of sleeping on your side. Again, this doesn’t have research to back it up, but it’s worth trying out.

I’d be very grateful if you could leave a comment to say if these ideas work for you, if you decide to try them or already have done. That way I can write in more detail about how often it helps people.

And if you have any other suggestions for coping mechanisms that might benefit other readers, please feel free to leave a comment below.

406 CommentsLeave a comment

  • My husband has sleep apnea and a CPAP. Like others, he doesn’t wear the mask every night or for more than a couple of hours. He started this moaning a few months ago. Maybe not coincendintly, he was diagnosed with dementia also about the same time the noises started. I have to sleep in another room if I want any sleep! The difference in our situation is, he does this with his eyes open, sitting up, like when reading the paper and he has groaned when he is in the kitchen preparing something to eat, not asleep!?
    How can that be? He is 82, not over weight, no reason to be stressed really as we have a comfortable life. It is Very annoying! Thanks for any hints out there what to do. It means no vacations together unless have separate rooms.

  • I have also been humming or moaning since I was about 8. I always thought I had used the meaning to fall asleep when I was a kid due to lots of noise in the house (dad was in a band that practiced at night). I still do this today however and my boyfriend has to sometimes sleep in the other room. I have tried sleeping on my side and with higher pillows. This seems to reduce it but only a little. Before I found this article I thought it was just me and was considering trying a hypnotist or something like acupuncture. It sounds like the only option might be the machine which I haven’t tried. I’m also considering the breathing strips first but I kind of doubt they’ll do anything. Thanks for writing this article,super helpful. All of my life friends and boyfriends said I was moaning in my sleep and it sounded sexual too.

    • Hi Bee
      Thanks for your comment and compliment. I’m glad you found the article helpful! You’re definitely not the only one who does this, and I hope you find something that helps.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi,
    I’m a 38 year old healthy woman and started making strange noises about 2 years ago which I thought was only occasional. Now it is every night no matter which position I sleep in. The noise is squeaky and on the out breath, odd groans and another noise which sounds like a coffee machine! I recorded myself and there are around 30 to 50 per night. I often wake myself up and my boyfriend has to wear ear plugs. Now I know the extent I feel concerned about travelling and staying in hostels or sharing rooms with friends. I wish there was a simple measure to stop it.

  • I wonder why my husband make groaning sounds in night. It irritates me a lot and i lost my sleep for years. But Ethan Green, your guidelines helped me a lot. Your words about catathrenia made me to understand my husband’s problem completely. I’am gonna try the remedy measures and make my husband to sleep freely.

  • My husband has Aspiration-Induced Lung Injury. He is at extreme risk of aspiration pneumonia and sepsis, which he has had three times in the last five months and many, many times over the last seven years. He has no parastalsis, and has had a Schatzki ring dilation on his esophagus. His first heart attack ocurred in 2001 in which he had some anoxia. The lung damage started in 2009 when he had aspiration into his lungs with his second serious heart attack during which he was unconscious. He has had several serious bouts of vomiting and further serious scarring of his lungs this year (2016). About five years ago he was diagnosed with COPD and he slept with a CPAP until he gave it up because it was too difficult to breathe with it on. Of course, he has aspiration events constantly because his AILI has cause his esophagus to become nearly unworkable. All they can do now is implant a feeding tube — which won’t stop the aspiration from his stomach so he doesn’t want it.

    He started with his catathrenia four months ago — in the hospital after one of two serious vomiting episode that lasted all night. He now seems to be awake much of the time he is making the noise, but is also asleep part of the time. He is a life-long insomniac who has given up his sleep meds because they have not really worked since his anoxia with his second heart attack and a global stroke caused by an aortic ablation in 2005.

    I have asked him to “stop” making the noise, and he actually did one evening several months ago. He also had two evenings this month in which he made no sounds and he slept. This I do not understand. However, I do believe that there is a significant attachment to his dementia. I will no longer make any desperate demands for him to stop because I now fully understand that he cannot help himself. I appreciate your article, however, as nobody in the hospital has been able to explain his pattern: he will breathe in very deeply, stop breathing briefly, exhale with short breaths while yelling ‘Oh’. This exhale happens in four, loud “Oh’s!” Then he has about six very quiet and shallow and short inhalations/exhalations of almost equal length, but each inhale becoming longer until he begins the very deep breathing and the sound-making pattern again. His deep inhales cause a heaving in his chest (like a dying person), but his exhale is very short as is typical with a COPD patient who cannot exhale all the CO2 they should. His doctors have suggested that he probably has six months to live. I will have to find a way to sleep and tolerate our nights for the rest of his life. There isn’t much left and he’s been a wonderful, wonderful husband, father and grandfather.

    • Hi Mary
      I’m very sorry to hear about what you and your family are going through. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be. I think you’re probably right in that it might be very difficult to stop the noises he’s making, especially if he doesn’t want to use any equipment like the CPAP. So you may, as you say, have to tolerate the nights together. I really don’t have much in the way of advice about how to do that. All I can do is wish you every strength and good will possible.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I used to make sounds occasionally and be aware of it and wake up. Lately, since I had been through an extremely stressful time with my husband and son needing unrelated emergency admission to different hospitals and a daughter stressed and me on a deadline for my PhD, I have been doing it non-stop. Sometimes I wake up, other times I sleep through but it happens constantly now. For me, it seems stress related as I have also had two episodes of really debilitating panic attacks.

  • I started noticing I had this in my mid teens and while it was occasionally annoying it didn’t feel like a big deal or happen regularly enough for me to care too much. I’m now 35 and in the last 5 years the symptoms have increased to the point where I now do it every night and wake my partner up or sleep badly because I’m concerned that I’m waking her up. Interestingly over the last three years I’ve put on around 2.5 stone (35ibs) of muscle/size and I feel that has definitely made the symptoms worse. I’ve been with my partner 10 years and she’s only really been aware of the sounds in the second half of our relationship. In my opinion it’s related to tight breathing as I always have one nostril at least partially blocked. I’ve speculated that it’s a stress related condition in the past but it’s so regular now that I no longer think so. My parter and I both sleep with high quality ear plugs which helps and I would recommend them highly. I’ve also found that taking in 5 or 10 very long breathes if I wake in the night lessens them symptoms once I fall back to sleep for a short time. Everyone makes noise when they sleep, so I’m not that bothered by it.

    • Hi Alex
      Thanks for your comment. Have you thought about trying nasal strips for snoring to see if they help? If you feel it’s connected to your blocked nose, they could make a difference.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I am so thankful that I am not the only one who does this. I would be more thankful, though, if there were a simple cure. My boyfriend can’t even sleep in the same bed as me because of these awful sounds I make.

    Also, to comment on one of those last suggestions… I sleep on my side ALL the time. If I sleep any other way, I definitely don’t realize it. So call me crazy, but that obviously doesn’t work for me.

    • Hi Karen
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it’s a shame that there isn’t a simple cure. The suggestions at the end won’t work for everyone, as you know yourself, otherwise they would be the simple cure, or at least preventative measure. But hopefully they will help some. In your case, if it’s causing problems for you and your relationship, perhaps speaking to your doctor and getting their help would be a good step.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I moan in my sleep. All the time. But I’ve never been diagnosed with any sleep or breathing disorders. My husband tells me that certain sleeping positions definitely make the sound worse while some extinguish it completely. When I lay on my side it is less likely I moan. But when I’m on my back, I can guarantee that one of us doesn’t sleep well.

    • Hi there
      Thanks for your comment. It sounds like you know what to do to prevent it happening – the trick it to try to stay on your side, if you find that comfortable. At least perhaps at the beginning on the night until you’re both asleep, and then you can hope if you change position and moan, it won’t wake him up.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have moaned in my sleep since I was born. I am 35 years old. Of my six children, three of them also do this. My mother used to tell me I purred in my sleep. My former roommate thought I was having very sexual dreams, and I have noticed throughout the years if I am not feeling well, even if I do not realize it, or if I am having nightmares I get louder. My noises begin immediately after drifting off to sleep and continue throughout the night, or so I am told. My ex husband took video of me sleeping so I could hear myself, I had no idea until then how loud I actually was. I have also been woken up on a occasion, for fear i had stopped breathing as I have held my breath for several minutes at a time. I have not sought medical treatment and I have not tried anything to fix the problem. But it is refreshing to know there is a name for what’s going on. Thank you for sharing this article.

    • Hi Anna
      Thanks for your comment. Has anyone in your family ever spoken to a doctor about it and been checked for sleep apnea? If you hold you breath for so long, it might be a good idea to get yourself checked out, as it may or may not actually be catathrenia.
      Regards
      Ethan

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