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, 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.

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.

270 CommentsLeave a comment

  • These articles have been so helpful, my husband has been telling me for quite sometime I groan loudly odd sounds. I am a type 1 diabetic x 52 years. I would like to know about the surgery to help me resolve this embarrassing problem. Thank you.

    • Hi Connie
      Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you found the articles helpful. I think perhaps the first step would be to talk to your doctor. They can advise you if they think surgery would be helpful, and also speak to you about trying something else such as a cpap machine.

  • A week ago, out of the blue, my significant other informed me that I was making weird and loud noises inconsistently throughout the night. Your description of Catathrenia sounds exactly what has been happening, I am 73 years old, work full time with a long commute and oftentimes stressful situations. I have no energy to get to the gym or even do yard work and my appetite is negligible. I do enjoy my wine and also cigarettes – however I started wearing a nicotine patch last week at the onset of this breathing issue. Stopped the patch several days ago but noises did not cease. Should I go to a sleep specialist or through my primary care physician? Look forward to your response and advice – I DO NOT LIKE THIS SITUATION!!!!!

    • Hi Bev
      Thanks for your comment. I would start with your personal doctor. They can check your lungs first of all to see if the smoking has caused any problems which could lead to the noises. If not, you can also get their advice about seeing a sleep specialist.

  • Hi
    I have been making weird sexual noises in my sleep. My husband says this is not the first time. Even when my sisters visited me they also heard the noises. According to my husband only only do I make the sounds but also do sexual movements.
    He said he is tired of me having sex in my sleep and it shows that m in another relationship therefore he thinks its better if he leaves.The scary part is that I don’t even remember any of this.
    please help?

    • Hi Adrie
      Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear you’re having relationships difficulty because of this. Have you tried showing your husband this article, or any other like it on the internet? Or perhaps even speaking to your doctor about it together? I know it can be hard for a partner to put up with, but perhaps if he reads this information it will help him understand and accept that it’s a sleep disorder and not at all connected to any untoward behavior in life.

  • My son just recorded me . Woke him up said I was making a sound like someone holding the end of a ballon and slowly letting the air out but at different amounts .. I do have webbing in my throat had stretched dialated . Also cervical plate rod from car accident. And had tumor taken off thyroid . Lots inflammation from sarcoidosis.

  • Hi,

    Thank you for the helpful article! I think I may have the same problem. The wierd sounds occur when I have indigestion and sleep face up, laying on my back. Last night, I also noticed I had little difficulty breathing before I slept which may have contributed to the wierd sounds I made all night. I will try sleeping on my side with more pillows and avoid eating meals that can cause indigestion.

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