Microsleep – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

A Microsleep is a short and temporary period of sleep or extreme drowsiness. It can last from a fraction of a second up to around thirty seconds. They are categorized by the fact an individual appears to be totally unresponsive to an external sensory stimulus. The individual gains awareness and acknowledges their brief lapse in consciousness. Microsleep can also refer to sudden shifts between being awake and sleeping.

Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately. 

What Causes Microsleep?

One cause for Microsleep is extreme sleep deprivation. This can be either as a result of a sleep disorder like insomnia, sleep apnea or narcolepsy, or because of environmental factors such as night shifts or over work. Some medications can also induce feeling of excessive daytime sleepiness or drowsiness, which can result in Microsleep.

Boredom or very monotonous, repetitive tasks can induce microsleep in a non-sleep deprived individual, too. Microsleep is most likely to occur during times when the circadian rhythms dictate the body should be asleep, such as around dawn, very late at night, or in the mid afternoon.

When the brain is tired, it rests the parts of it that aren’t currently needed – this is called local sleep. Microsleep is when local sleep goes too far and takes over parts of the brain which are currently in use.

What Is Microsleep?
What Is Microsleep?

What Are Symptoms Of Microsleep?

There are two categories for the symptoms of Microsleep. They are behavioral indicators, or those based on electroencephalography (EEG), a measure of brain wave activity.

The most common behavioral indicators of Microsleep are eyelid drooping, slow eyelid closure, and head nodding. In terms of EEG indicators, a Microsleep is defined as when theta wave activity quickly and momentarily replaces alpha wave activity as the background rhythm of the brain. In layman’s terms, it’s a quick and short term shift between activity in the usual wakeful areas of the brain to those commonly associated with deep sleep.

Some experts claim only EEG indicators can be relied on in terms of defining Microsleep. But because of the variety of different indicators sometimes occurring not at the same time, there is little agreement about what actual does and does not define Microsleep.

Defining Microsleep

There are a variety of different tests for Microsleep. Many involve testing brain waves and brain activity, but there are also psychological tests such as reaction time, short term memory, or the Multiple Sleep Latency Test. The Multiple Sleep Latency Test measures sleep deprivation by tracking how likely on is to fall asleep in a variety of situations, and the speed with which this occurs. There are also tests which rely on more visible factors, such as tracking blinks, frequency of yawns and speed of speech.

Risks Of Microsleep?

Microsleep can be particularly dangerous in circumstances which require consistent and undivided attention, such as driving a motor vehicle or operating heavy machinery. Drowsiness when driving is becoming a huge public health concern. Some research suggests drowsy driving accounts for 16.5% of all fatal motor vehicle crashes.

Another problem with Microsleep is that those who suffer from them may be in denial of the fact. They may insist they haven’t been asleep, or have simply “zoned out” without losing full consciousness.

Warning Signs Of Microsleep

It’s important to stay cognizant of Microsleep signs, particularly if you know you’re at risk or you’re undertaking more dangerous behavior like an extended period of driving. If you notice yourself feeling excessively sleepy, struggling to keep your eyes open or blinking excessively, yawning a lot, having difficulty focusing or wandering thoughts, being excessively moody or irritable, or nodding your head in a jerky manner, it is well worth taking a break or having a nap. It’s also important to look for these warning signs in others to mitigate accidents.

If you experience these symptoms or think you may be suffering from any sleep disorder, consult with your medical professional immediately.

Daytime Parahypnagogia

Episodes of daytime parahypnagogia are not full episodes of Microsleep, but are still a temporary loss of consciousness and self-awareness. Daytime parahypnagogia is an extreme and short burst of daydreaming, where an image or situation appears intensely and quickly in an individual’s consciousness. They may occur without any of the behavioral or EEG indicators of Microsleep, but will be recognized by the individual as a zoning out or even as a daydream. They can occur when listening to something the individual isn’t interested in, or thanks to a lack of external stimuli. The individual’s eyes tend to stay open and there may be no external indicators of what’s happening.

Microsleep And Other Conditions

Microsleep is commonly a symptom of another sleep disorder. Sleep apnea commonly manifests itself in Microsleep, alongside other disorders which can lead to sleep deprivation like insomnia or narcolepsy.  

Microsleep can also be a symptom of some other diseases. If you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one, it’s important to seek medical advice.

What Are Common Treatments For Microsleep?

The majority of treatments for Microsleep often revolve around treating the excessive daytime sleepiness which usually causes it. Those who suffer Microsleep in a less severe capacity can also notice positive effects through carefully monitored intake of caffeine. A well timed nap (of under thirty minutes to avoid entering the sleep cycle) can work as a quick, short term help. Some vitamin supplements can also help alertness and wakefulness. It’s best to talk with your doctor before beginning any course of treatment.

Perhaps the best way to reduce Microsleep is to avoid excessive daytime sleepiness by getting enough rest. This can be achieved by having a relaxing evening routine, keeping good sleep hygiene, avoiding alcohol and heavy food before bed, minimizing caffeine intake and having a comfortable and suitable sleep environment.

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Annie Walton Doyle

Annie Walton Doyle is a freelance writer based in Manchester, UK. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Daily Telegraph, Professional Photography Magazine, Bustle, Ravishly and more. When not writing, she enjoys pubs, knitting, nature and mysteries.

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