Dangerous dreams: Sleep disorder brings nightmares to life

May 7, 2013 (CHICAGO)

The results can be devastating. Could you be at risk?

We have a patient willing to share her emotional and disturbing story in hopes of preventing others from getting hurt.

It was July 8, 2010, when Pat Becker's life changed in a violent way.

"Usually the dreams are kinda scary and frightful in some way," said Becker.

She was having a very vivid, disturbing dream.

While using a public restroom, she noticed a peeping tom, crouched in the stall watching her.

She decided to take action.

"First I growled at him, and then I thought, I'm gonna jump on him," Becker said.

What happened next, no one really knows for sure.

But, she apparently jumped and came crashing down on a table next to the bed.

Disturbing pictures detail the physical damage.

Becker, who lives in central Illinois, woke up on the floor with blood dripping from her mouth.

"My first thought was, am I still dreaming or is this reality?" said Becker. "And then I realized this is real, so I put my hand up to my mouth and my tooth fell out."

And then, another shocker - this was not some random incident.

After several sleep studies, Becker was diagnosed with a rare condition called REM behavior disorder or RBD.

Essentially it's a problem where you unconsciously act out dreams while still asleep.

Maybe you've heard of it from the movie "Sleep Walk with Me." Stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia details his struggle with the disorder, which experts stress is not sleepwalking.

RBD is different, in that it occurs during the stage of sleep when we're normally temporarily paralyzed.

But for some reason that protective mechanism in the brain switches off, and you actually start moving like you are in your dream.

From yelling to hitting to kicking, running into objects, jumping off furniture - the effects can be dangerous to not only patients, but bed partners as well.

Sleep specialist Aleksander Videnovic is trying to unravel this mysterious condition through his special RBD clinic at Northwestern Medicine.

"How common is RBD in the general population? The true real answer is we don't know," said Dr. Aleksandar Videnovic.

He says many don't know the warning signs for RBD.

Even more disturbing is that the disorder is now being linked to Parkinson's disease.

"Individuals effected with REM behavior disorder are at significantly higher risk for developing neurodegeneratibe diseases such as parkinson's disease," said Videnovic.

It's unclear why there seems to be that link to Parkinson's.

Luckily, Becker - who is now part of a Northwestern study - has not had any other serious incidents and her RBD does not appear to be linked to Parkinson's.

She says her life is now back to normal.

RBD is not curable, but can be managed with medication.

    Are you at risk for RBD, or REM behavior disorder?

  • Do you ever kick, jump, punch, shout, or leap out of bed while you are sleeping?
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  • Has your bed partner expressed concern about your unusual sleep behaviors?
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  • Have any of these sleep activities resulted in an injury to you or your bed partner?
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To know for sure if it's RBD, consider talking to your doctor about undergoing a sleep study.

RBD Clinic
Northwestern Memorial Hospital
(312) 503-0755

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