Tests and diagnosis

By Mayo Clinic Staff

There are no tests routinely done to diagnose nightmares. Occasionally, if your sleep is severely disturbed, your doctor may recommend an overnight sleep study to help determine if the nightmares are connected to another sleep disorder. Nightmares should be distinguished from night terrors, another parasomnia in which you are likely to sit up, scream, talk, thrash and kick, and, for older adults, REM sleep behavior disorder, which involves the acting out of dreams.

Sleep studies

To participate in a sleep study, also known as a polysomnogram, you'll likely spend the night in a sleep lab. Sensors that send electrical signals will be placed on various parts of your body, and a monitor will be attached to your finger. In some studies, a video camera will record your sleep. Throughout the night, the sensors will record your:

  • Heartbeat
  • Brain waves
  • Breathing
  • Eye movements
  • Leg movements
  • Muscle tension
  • Blood oxygen level

Your doctor will review the information to determine whether you have any sleep disorders.

Tests and diagnosis

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Treatment for nightmares isn't usually necessary. If the nightmares are associated with an underlying medical or mental health condition, treatment is aimed at the underlying problem. If stress or anxiety seems to be contributing to the nightmares, your doctor may suggest stress-reduction techniques, counseling or therapy.

Medication is rarely used to treat nightmares. However, medications that reduce REM sleep or reduce awakenings during sleep may be recommended if you have severe sleep disturbance.

Imagery rehearsal therapy

Often used with people who have nightmares as a result of PTSD, imagery rehearsal therapy involves changing the ending to your remembered nightmare while awake so that it's no longer threatening. You then rehearse the new ending in your mind. This approach may decrease the frequency of nightmares.

Aug. 12, 2011