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.

347 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hi Ethan i always moan when falling asleep,in the middle of the night she says i make louder noises sometimes she wakes me up and i don’t hear it myself. i have spoken to a doctor and he told me its just stress so i should be getting enough rest and from the article i read on here and this going on for a long time i believe there is something wrong with me and i need help on medication or ways to sleep to open my air valve so i don’t make such noise anymore.
    counting on your quick responds.

    • Hi Eric
      Thanks for your comment. I think if your doctor knows your current situation and feels stress could be an issue, it’s a good idea to listen to them. Stress can wreak havoc with our sleep, so if it is an issue for you at the moment, I would seriously consider trying to tackle it. There are lots of self-help techniques, such as mindfulness for example, that can be very effective. In terms of opening the airway, as I said in the article the only proven method is with a CPAP machine, and that would need your doctor’s approval.

  • I’ve had this for years. Even sitting up in the car when we would go on vacation and I would start to fall asleep I would moan! Sometimes so loud I wake myself up. I recently had microvascular deconpression because my cerebral artery was pressing on my facial nerve.causing hemifacial soasms and they put a cushion between it. It was back by the brain stem where a lot of nerves come out in a narrow area including the vegus ? Nerve I think it’s called. I have read there were some ideas this nerve could possibly have something to do with it. Long story short because the nerve is close to where I had the surgery my left vocal chord is paralyzed now and the sounds are louder and worse. My husband sleeps on the couch. It’s terrible! I have always wondered if that same cerebral artery thatcprolapsed is leaning on the vegus nerve also

    • Hi Noreen
      Thanks for your comment. You situation is out of my scope of knowledge, I’m afraid! It’s one for your own doctor to look into and advise on. I can empathize with the effect on your sleeping arrangement though. Has he tried using earplugs sometimes so you can sleep together? There are some excellent earplugs that will cut out a lot of sound.

    • Hi Eve
      Thanks for your comment. To be honest, I’m not sure. Though thinking about it, weight can play a role in other breathing disorders, such as apnea. So perhaps there’s a possibility in this case too. But again, I don’t have any evidence to back that up.

  • I’ve been making strange noises in my sleep since I was 2 years old. My parents initially thought it will go away when I got older but I’m 21 years old now and it hasn’t stopped. The way it started was that I loved my Pacifier when I was a toddler I wouldn’t let go of it to the point where I would cry if they took it. I would also make a sound while sucking on it, after some time I let go of it or was forced to . Now the strange sound I make while sleeping is the same sound I made when I was a toddler sucking my pacifier. I know it sounds crazy but that’s what my mum tells me. Maybe its buried deep in sub conscience or something .I don’t know what to do please help.

    • Hi Alice
      Thanks for your comment. To be honest, I’m not sure if I can provide much help on this one. If you’re right, then it’s probably not going to fall under the category of catathrenia. If it is a learned behavior from your childhood, then I’m wondering if some kind of talking therapy might be able to get to the root of it, but it might not be straightforward. Otherwise, perhaps you could try a snoring mouth-guard to see if it prevents you from making the sound, just by changing the position of your mouth. I’m just thinking off the top of my hear, but it might be worth trying as they are relatively inexpensive.

  • Have being making strange noises in my sleep for as long as i can remember infact it just happen to me . At times when it happen my body feel tired and heavy like i was fighting in my sleep , if a sleep on back or side it happen in fact when a wake from my sleep just now i was on my side , don’t know what it is mabe you knows but it is very scary and embrassing .

  • my husband cant sleep at night because I moan so loud. He says he is surprised the neighbors haven’t called the cops, that is how loud I moan. Are there any homeopathic ways to prevent this?

  • My husband, Ken; has this condition & in the beginning I would imitate his sounds. He would ask me if I heard that? I said “Of course I heard that! How else would I have known to make that noise like you made?” In the beginning we joked about it. I even told him that I thought he might have been making “mating calls”! LOL! Well the novelty of it has worn off & after A SLEEPLESS NIGHT, my last bad nerve is being frazzled! By the way, the only way he sleeps is on his sides! We can say that is not helpful in the least! Anyone have ANY other suggestions?

    • Hi Vickie
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I don’t have any further suggestions. Keep an eye on the comments here though as I know that people do from time to time chime in with some useful new suggestion.

    • Hi Lisa
      Thanks for your comment. It’s most likely because you’re not fully asleep that you hear it. And perhaps when you’re ill, your breathing is affected, making it worse.

  • I do know that this does occur with my boy friends sleeping pattern.
    At first it seem like a scary situation, he does all of the above, i’m just wondering what is the danger part out of all of this? he will do this between early am mornings, like any where between the hrs of 2- 4 AM. when he is in the process of this it’s extremely loud.

    • Hi Sharon
      Thanks for your comment. Catathrenia in itself isn’t thought to be dangerous. However, it may be worth discussing it with a doctor to rule out other potentially more serious sleep disorders.

      • It may be dangerous if the one sleeping next to you puts a pillow over your head to stop the noise! LOL. Yes my wife has threatened me with this a few times. I tend to make these noises more so when I sleep on my back but unfortunately, that tends to be the most comfortable position for me to sleep in. I feel bad that she has to listen to this and interrupt her sleep but I’m just not sure what will alleviate it.

        • Hi Chris,
          Thanks for your comment. Yes, that’s very true! Suffocation would definitely elevate it into the dangerous category…
          Have you spoken to a doctor about it? Perhaps trying a cpap machine would work for you, if you don’t feel you can try tackle it through position changes. And in the meantime, a good set of earplugs would definitely take the noise level down, if not cut it out altogether.

  • i think im suffering with this roommates always wakes me up during the night. but i sometimes experience it during the day(maybe once or twice) .its characterised by deep forced-like breathing in of air, which results in a an irritating sound as the air moves through the upper of the mouth into the upperway. could it still be catathrenia?

    • Hi Ronald
      Thanks for your comment. If it’s occurring on the in-breath, then it would probably be something else. I’d speak to your doctor about this if it sounds like you’re having trouble breathing when sleeping.

  • I believe I’m currently suffering from the same problem, I’m in college and my roommate tells me that I moan in my sleep. I’ll try sleeping on my side or on my stomach with my head elevated to see if it helps !

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