Groaning While Sleeping: What It Means, What to Do
Does your partner make strange sounds (other than snoring) when they’re asleep? If so, they may be suffering from a type of sleep-disordered breathing known as catathrenia.
When someone has catathrenia (also known as nocturnal groaning) they typically take a deep breath followed by an exhalation that induces a squeaking, groaning or moaning sound for as little as a few seconds or as long as nearly one minute! Usually, the person with catathrenia doesn't know they have it — but you, as the partner, sure do!
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2017 set out to learn more about catathrenia due to its rarity (researchers reported that the condition affects fewer than one out of every 200 of those referred to a sleep clinic). With that being said, the study’s authors pointed out that catathrenia symptoms measured during a sleep study closely resemble those of central sleep apnea — and this may explain the relatively low number of catathrenia diagnoses.
The study collected data from published case reports that described patients with catathrenia and questionnaires from 47 individuals with catathrenia who were found through social media groups. Researchers found that although slightly more women reported catathrenia (57.4 percent) compared to men (42.5 percent), these differences were not statistically significant.
The average age of participants with catathrenia was 40 years and BMI was in the normal range. On average, participants reported being aware of their unusual groaning for 15 years — while only six percent noticed the problem themselves (the remaining 94 percent were made aware of the problem by observers such as bed partners).
The importance of empathy
When your partner learns about his or her nighttime behavior, they can feel a number of negative emotions — so it’s important that you provide empathy and support.
Participants in the 2017 study reported that catathrenia caused them distress due to:
Worry about health consequences
Worry about disturbing their bed partner
Getting poor quality or unrefreshing sleep
Worry about the effect a partner sleeping in a separate room will have on their relationship
Encourage and support sleep improvements
Taking steps to improve sleep may reduce the occurrence of catathrenia. The study found that, of those with catathrenia:
83 percent reported unrefreshing sleep
77 percent reported fatigue
70 percent reported decreased daytime alertness
62 percent reported decreased concentration
45 percent reported insomnia
32 percent had woken suddenly during the night due to breath holding, gasping, or choking
The authors of the study determined that sleeping position was unlikely to make a difference when it came to nocturnal groaning likelihood or frequency.
Consider the presence of anxiety or depression
Anxiety and depression may have an association with catathrenia — the study found that 45 percent of those with catathrenia reported anxiety or depression (although 40 percent reported no medical conditions whatsoever).
Urge your partner to stop smoking and reduce alcohol consumption
The study found that 28 percent of those with catathrenia reported that they had a history of smoking, while 13 percent were current smokers. 77 percent reported drinking alcohol with an average consumption of four-and-a-half drinks per week.
Does your partner swim regularly?
Only two percent of high school students in the United States actively participate in competitive swimming — but researchers found that 20 percent of participants with catathrenia were active swimmers who swam roughly once every week and had a history of competitive swimming. This suggests that there may be a link between swimming and catathrenia, but more studies are needed before we can reach this conclusion with any certainty.
Consider a sleep study
The study found that 29 individuals had taken an overnight sleep study. Of these, 10 participants were given a diagnosis of mild obstructive sleep apnea, three patients received a specific diagnosis of catathrenia and were recommended CPAP therapy, and two patients were told they demonstrated unusual vocalizations during sleep but were not diagnosed with catathrenia (CPAP was recommended). The remainder were told their sleep studies were normal.
The literature review suggested that positive airway pressure (CPAP) may have some success at reducing nocturnal groaning and improving daytime well-being.
Is catathrenia dangerous?
A literature review conducted by the study’s authors did not identify any links between catathrenia and risk of physical harm or long-term disease.
Treatment with medications such as benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and anti-epileptics was not shown to be particularly effective. One study found catathrenia was exacerbated by sodium oxybate (a drug used to treat narcolepsy).
If all else fails, wear earplugs!
As a last resort, try investing in a pair of earplugs so your partner’s nocturnal noises don’t disrupt your sleep. You could also try sleeping in another room but since this can upset your partner and damage your relationship, you should discuss this option with them first.