Why Do I Moan in My Sleep and How to Manage It?

While occasional moans and groans during sleep are normal and nothing to be concerned about, persistent moaning and groaning during the night may be catathrenia — an uncommon chronic sleep disorder. It is not dangerous per se, but when untreated, it can lead to fragmented sleep patterns, disrupted sleep, and, in turn, may result in daytime fatigue, poor performance, and heightened irritability. Because catathrenia is rare and often unreported, there is a lack of conclusive research on the exact causes and nature of the disorder. However, there are several lifestyle changes and treatments available to address the issue.

Why do people moan in their sleep?

Catathrenia, previously seen as a sleep disorder, is now considered a respiratory issue as it involves deep breaths followed by breath holding and slow exhalation, often with groaning sounds. While similar to parasomnias, catathrenia also shares features with respiratory problems, resembling central apneas, but usually without major drops in oxygen levels.

The potential risk factors for experiencing catathrenia are the following:

  • Family history of sleeping disorders. Having one or both parents with catathrenia or other sleep disorders increases one’s chances of sleep moaning.
  • Small jaw. There are some studies that suggest that having a smaller jaw can lead to sleep moaning; however, the evidence is inconclusive.
  • Gender. More cases of catathrenia have been reported in males, but the reason is unknown.
  • Stress and anxiety. Emotional stress or anxiety can manifest during sleep, leading to vocalizations such as groaning, sighing, or whimpering.
  • Sleep position. Sleeping on the back may lead to upper airway collapse, thus promoting catathrenia. However, there is no conclusive research to confirm the link between sleep position and catathrenia.

While sleep-related disorders can manifest as sleep moaning and groaning, they have distinct characteristics from catathrenia. For example, REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) can involve vocalizations, sleepwalking, or other complex behaviors during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea can cause moans and groans due to disrupted breathing.

Another reason why people moan in their sleep may be nightmares and night terrors. Intense dreams usually occur during REM sleep and can lead to vocalizations. However, while both catathrenia and nightmares lead to disturbed sleep, they are distinct phenomena.

Is it normal to moan or groan in your sleep?

While occasional sleep moaning may not necessarily indicate a serious underlying issue, frequent or disruptive vocalizations during sleep should prompt further evaluation by a healthcare professional. Understanding the underlying cause is essential in determining appropriate management strategies.

Catathrenia diagnosis

Inhalation, followed by an exhalation with irregular moaning and groaning sounds, is the hallmark of the disorder and usually occurs during REM sleep. Individuals experiencing catathrenia often exhibit repeated episodes throughout the night that disrupt their sleep quality, leading to daytime fatigue. In most cases, catathrenia develops during adolescence or early adulthood but remains undiagnosed, as the sleeper is unaware that they are moaning. Sleep moaning usually gets noticed by a roommate or a bed partner.

Diagnosing catathrenia involves a thorough evaluation by a sleep specialist, including a review of medical history, sleep patterns, and possibly a sleep study (polysomnography) to monitor breathing patterns, brain activity, and muscle movements during sleep.

Signs and symptoms of moaning while sleeping

Producing loud, groaning sounds during sleep, often resembling a moan or a sigh, is the main symptom of catathrenia, but there are other symptoms to look out for as well. Sleep moaning disrupts sleep, leading to waking up tired despite getting enough hours and not remembering waking up during the night — these can be signs to look out for. Disturbed sleep can also lead to daytime fatigue, difficulty focusing, increased irritability, and worse mood. If catathrenia goes undiagnosed, long-term sleep disruptions and sleep deprivation can even lead to relationship strains.

How to manage moaning or groaning while sleeping

Managing sleep moaning may involve both lifestyle changes and medical interventions aimed at improving sleep quality and reducing vocalizations.

Changing your sleep position

Simple changes in sleep position, such as sleeping on one's side instead of the back, may sometimes alleviate sleep moaning and groaning to a certain degree. Sleeping on the back can exacerbate airway obstruction and increase the likelihood of vocalizations. However, research on different sleep positions and catathrenia is currently lacking.

Using a CPAP mask

For individuals with underlying sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask can help keep the airway open during sleep, preventing collapse and thus reducing the frequency and intensity of sleep moaning episodes.

Surgery

In severe cases of sleep-disordered breathing, surgical options for catathrenia may be considered, but only when there are underlying anatomical issues contributing to upper airway collapse or obstruction.

Medications

While there are no specific medications approved for the treatment of catathrenia, certain medications, such as muscle relaxants or antidepressants, may be prescribed on a case-by-case basis to manage associated symptoms or underlying sleep disorders.

How can your partner sleep better?

Sleep disruptions caused by a partner's moaning or groaning can be challenging to cope with. Thankfully, there are a few practical solutions to minimize disturbances and promote better sleep if your roommate or partner has catathrenia.

  • Earplugs. Earplugs are one of the easiest and cheapest ways to cancel out noises around you during sleep and improve your sleep quality. There are a lot of noise-canceling ones on the market that are a bit more expensive than the foam or wax ones. However, it may be a good investment for your health and well-being, as earplugs can come in handy during travel or with noisy neighbors as well.
  • White noise machines. Consistent sound produced by a white noise machine can help promote relaxation and deeper sleep, as well as cancel out moaning sounds. However, it is not a fit-all solution, as some people find the white noise itself distracting and disruptive of sleep. There are several apps and free videos available that you can try before investing in a white noise machine.
  • Sleeping in separate rooms. If earplugs and white noise feel uncomfortable and do not help you sleep better, it might be worth considering sleeping in separate bedrooms if such an option is available.

When to seek professional help

If sleep moaning persists despite lifestyle modifications or begins to significantly impact sleep quality, daytime functioning, or interpersonal relationships, it is advisable to seek evaluation by a healthcare provider or sleep specialist. Prompt diagnosis and management can help alleviate symptoms and improve overall sleep quality.

Sleep moaning, though often benign, can have a significant impact on sleep quality and overall well-being. By understanding the underlying causes and implementing appropriate management strategies, individuals can effectively reduce sleep vocalizations and improve their sleep quality and that of their partners. Seeking professional evaluation and guidance when needed is crucial in addressing persistent or disruptive sleep moaning effectively.

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