Why Sleep Disorder Sufferers May Beat Up Bedmates

Jeannie Gibbs Replogle used to find it hard to sleep in the same bed as her husband, and it wasn't because he snored or hogged the blankets. Instead — out of the blue — he would start pummeling her.

"To have him beat me up in the middle of the night was very mysterious. And I tended to take it personally," she told Good Morning America. "Why is this guy punching me, when he's allegedly asleep?"

For most of us, getting a good night's sleep is something we take for granted — but for tens of thousands a good night's sleep is something they can only dream about. These people suffer from "parasomnia" or "disorders of arousal," a sort of limbo between sleep and wake cycles.

‘I Would Lash Out’

For sufferers, sleep is a time of out-of-control behavior, filled with bouts of eating, walking and even smoking. Replogle suffers from a particularly dramatic form of parasomnia, known as REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, or RBD.

People with RBD tend to kick, punch, and shout in their sleep. It is dangerous for them, and for anyone who shares the same bed. Experts at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis say that 0.5 percent of the entire U.S. adult population deals with RBD.

The Replogles spent years struggling with Coy Replogle's troubling sleep disorder. It surfaced several times a week — often in the form of a disturbing dream, in which he was being surrounded by menacing figures.

"I would lash out at them, and sometimes I'd hit Jeannie," Coy Replogle said.

In 1988, a time when experts were just beginning to understand the phenomenon of RBD, the Replogles sought help at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center.

Brain’s Missed Signals

For most people during REM, or the "rapid eye movement" phases of sleep, nerve cells in the brain send certain "inhibitory" signals to the rest of the body, and the only muscles that move are those for breathing and eye movement.

But for those with RBD, the brain fails to send those signals, and there is no inhibition of movement. Doctors at the sleep center prescribed clonazepam — a sedative — which quickly brought Replogle's RBD episodes under control.

Jim Smith also experienced violent episodes of kicking and punching during his sleep, affecting his wife Dee's sleep as well as his own.

"Sometimes I'd kick the walls, hit the walls with my fist, and actually my wife can explain more what happened because she was the one that was taking the abuse," Jim Smith said.

Dee Smith said she feared her husband would seriously injure her. Scarier still, she sometimes couldn't shake him awake.

"One night he came close to breaking my wrist," Dee Smith said. "I had a hard time waking him up when he would go into these dreams."

The night that happened, Jim Smith said he thought he was trying to put a deer out of its misery.

Linked to Parkinson’s?

Clonazepam also helped Jim Smith bring his RBD problem under control, but years later he was surprised to learn that RBD may have served as an indicator of an even more disturbing condition — one that was not diagnosed until 15 years later: Parkinson's disease. He isn't alone.

In fact, by monitoring the progress of two dozen patients like Smith — who were all treated for RBD in the late 1980s — experts at the Minnesota Sleep Center have made a disturbing yet important observation. More than half these patients have gone on to develop Parkinson's disease.

This is a finding which offers the potential of greater understanding and improved treatment for both conditions.

"I think it's going to help us identify much earlier some of these neurodegenerative diseases, which may lead to the development of treatments that might be able to prevent the development of the disease before it becomes full-blown," said Dr. Mark W. Mahowald, the director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center.

Right now, more research may be needed in the field of sleep disorders. The field of sleep disorders is still not taught in many medical schools, and some doctors don't know how to advise their patients with sleep disorders.

Years ago, doctors didn't know why RBD sufferers did what they did, and some people with the disorders even ended up going to an exorcist. Experts didn't understand RBD until the late 1980s. The Replogles even went to a marriage counselor, trying to find a solution to Coy Replogle's behavior.