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, then it may 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 parasomnias. Parasomnias can be defined as unusual nighttime occurrences. And the sound made by catathrenia sufferers in their sleep can be very strange indeed.

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 which can last from a few seconds up to a minute. And at the end of the groan could be a secondary noise like a snorting or the person 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 any noise, they’ll probably hear about it from them in the morning.

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 results in more social problems than being 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. Because of that, some argue that it shouldn’t be classed as a parasomnia, but rather a sleep-related breathing disorder.

Catathrenia treatment

Many people don’t even realise 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 Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

In that study though, all 7 of the people refused to keep wearing the machine, and most had surgery after the study. The researchers reported that those who did have surgery were cured of their catathrenia.

Since catathrenia is seen as a mild disorder, and more of an inconvenience for sufferers and their families, treatment isn’t usually rushed and the least intrusive options are offered first.

So the alternative is for people who are being disturbed by the noise to take action. Wearing earplugs for sleeping could help in some circumstances, though possibly not for the loudest of groaners.

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 room. 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.

Reader’s tip

Finally, a couple of 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.

I’d be very grateful if you decide to try it, if you could leave a comment later to say if it worked or not. That way I can write in more detail about how often it helps people.

236 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I have been doing this my whole life (26 years) and I am at the end of my tether now.

    Apparently I have a sharp gasping intake of breath then hold for extraordinary lengths of time when and let it out with a groan. My boyfriend is getting fed up, as it worries him and I interrupt his sleep. I very rarely feel refreshed by sleep and it is making me feel unwell, I really do not know what can be done. I do think there is something more to this than just a groaning noise as a particularly bad night can leave me exhausted and short of breath even when I have not woken up during the night

    • Hi Natalia
      Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear this is causing you so much distress. I can completely understand how difficult it must be, and tiring. I think perhaps the best thing to do is speak to your doctor to rule out other explanations such as apnea. If it is indeed catathrenia, then perhaps they can suggest something to help you.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi I’m Anna and I’m 23 and I’ve been doing this since I was very young like 7 years old. My mom has told me stoires about it. I get a lot of comments about it when people hear me at night. My sister says that I sometimes let out a moan thats almost 2 minutes long and it’s very loud. I notice that I’m very tired when the long and loud moans occur. I also grind my teeth very loud. I haven’t found a solution yet. I’m all over the place when I sleep so I can’t keep my head elevated to try and see if that soultion will work for me. But I’m content with my moans it’s a part of me and hopefully I find someone who will think it’s cute. lol

    • Hi Anna
      Thanks for your comment and particularly your positive attitude towards the moaning noises. I think it’s the first time a reader has said they see it in terms of being a part of them that they accept, and the first time I’ve thought about the idea. In fact, in the absence of clear treatment options, your attitude might be something that many readers could benefit from.
      Once again, thank you!
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi
    I’m umer from pakistan
    i got this problem of moaning and graoning while sleeping.
    My roommates have always complains me that i produce strange sounds at night . I’m too much worried about this even the doctor in pakistan don’t know how to treat this .
    due to this problem i cannot sleep well at night .
    kindly suggest me the solution
    my life is too much disturbed due to this

    • Hi Umer
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately I don’t really have any cure I can offer you. If you read through the comments you will find some things that other readers have suggested helping, such as sleeping with a raised pillow for example. You could also try, though there’s no guarantee it would work, some of the anti-snoring devices available. But really, for now it may be a case of working with your roommates to be understanding of your condition and accepting it as best they can.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I’ve apparently been doing this for a while now ! And its beginning to annoy the rest of the house, the first time I became aware of it was while on holiday sharing a room with someone, I kept getting nudged in the side with “are u ok ” ? I was quite worried so recorded my sleep and low and behold I was making some very strange sounds…. this has been a regular occurrence for a long time now. I mentioned to my gp but she diagnosed apnoea , I don’t think it is though, I will hopefully find a solution soon before I’m murdered in my sleep lol

  • My mom and I both do this in our sleep, perhaps there is a genetic component? In my experience elevating my head more does help. And it occurs when I’m really really tired.

  • Thank so much for this blog. I have seen many doctors & been searching for information on what kind of disorder I actually have for 24 years. I’m actually due to finally have a sleep test tomorrow night.

    The only reason it’s happening is because I saw a notice at a pharmacy advertising sleep tests and I filled the form out & got my GP to sign.

    Over the years doctors have done nothing but shrug thier shoulders at me. One doctor told me another doctor was conducting a sleep test soon and he’d put my name down for it & I’d be contacted. That was 6 years ago & I never had that test.

    Yes I have tried propping myself up with pillows & it does help, but also hurts my neck so much, I wind up throwing extra pillows out of the bed.

    I wake up most mornings feeling tired and lethargic. The few times I’ve woken feeling refreshed, I was told that i never made any noises.

    I have had a few operations with general anaesthetic over the years and the very best sleep I’ve had since this started (around the age of 16)…was when I had oxygen up my nostrils overnight in hospital.

    I had a couple of episodes at 16 yrs old. Then when I got pregnant, (late stages I think) a couple years later it started happening regularly.

    Anyway I’m relieved to finally find some answers…and just to know I’m not the only person in the world…I’m not the worlds weirdest snorer. Thanks again.

  • This sounds similar to what I’ve been dealing with lately. I’m almost nine months pregnant and this hasn’t been an issue until a few weeks ago. It’s upsetting because it’s hard enough for me to get sleep, and just as I feel like I’m falling asleep, my boyfriend wakes me up, highly annoyed and saying that I’ve been groaning or humming in my sleep again.

    • Hi Nirvana
      Thanks for your comment. It’s not my place to judge…but…I think your boyfriend perhaps needs to be a little more understanding! I’d recommend he tries some strong noise blocking earplugs until it passes.
      Regards
      Ethan

    • Hey Nirvana,

      The same thing happened to me. It started in my third trimester of my pregnancy. Unfortunately, my baby was born December 30th 2015 and the problem that started while pregnant has continued after delivery. He’s now almost 4 months old and my boyfriend constantly wakes me up throughout the night. It drives us both crazy bc we are both exhausted dealing with a teething newborn. Also, I’ve tried nose inserts to stop snoring and they don’t work, and he refuses to wear ear plugs bc he’s worried about not hearing the baby, and sometimes with this problem I cannot hear him right away when I am in a deep sleep so it is actually dangerous for us and scary bc of the baby. I hate this and wish I could make it stop, I have to go to a doctor now.

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