Nocturnal Lagophthalmos – what the heck is that? It’s the medical term for sleeping with your eyes open!
Some people think the ability to sleep with one’s eyes open is a fabrication of fiction. It belongs in a scene with a battle hardened solider who wakes up at the last second to protect himself. The truth is that sleeping with one’s eyes open is a real problem for an estimated 6 to 10% of the population.
The medical term for sleeping with one’s eyes open is nocturnal lagophthalmos. This is a two-fold problem. First, a doctor needs to determine if the nocturnal lagophtalmos is a symptom of a larger problem or if it is a condition in and of itself.
Sleeping with one’s eyes open can be an indicator of several other nerve and muscular problems. Bell’s Palsy is a usually a temporary condition that hits about one in 65 people during their lifetime and about 50,000 people annually. It causes temporary loss of muscle control of the face. About 10% of Bell’s Palsy patients develop permanent loss of muscle control. It will usually start with a pain in the neck or behind the ear that is typically dismissed or tolerated by the patient. When the patient wakes one morning with half their face drooping, they assume they’ve suffered a stroke and seek medical help. There are very few treatment options and most people end up having to wait for it to end as suddenly as it started.
Other more commonly known conditions can cause nocturnal lagophthalmos. Stroke victims, Alzheimer’s patients, and multiple sclerosis patients may develop it. Additionally trauma to the face and the nerves that lead to the face may also cause it. In this sense, “trauma” includes some facial piercings. For these people, the treatment focuses on the underlying medical condition.
For the people who do not have an underlying medical condition, sleeping with one’s eyes open is a part of their life. Often babies will sleep with their eyes open, but they tend to grow out of it between 12 and 18 months. Many patients note that it runs in their family and it’s considered a normal condition for that family.
Sleeping with one’s eyes open seems relatively harmless, but it can cause some big problems. Some people do not sleep well or they end up sleeping for very short periods of time due to painfully dry eyes. These people must use eye drops on a regular basis to help keep their eyes healthy.
To fully understand why this condition can be so troublesome, we need to take a step back and talk about what the eyelid does for the eye. The first thing the eyelid does is act as a physical shield for the eye. We will instinctively blink when we hear a loud noise. When something comes toward our face, we flinch. These are evolutionary developed reflexes to help us protect our eyes. When we blink, our eyelids will wash our eyes with fluid. This fluid helps cleanse the eye and remove any particulates that might be in them even if they’re too small to feel.
Now, let’s take a moment to explore the healing process of the eye. When we sleep our bodies work to repair themselves and our immune system kicks up to full speed. This is why people who are ill should get plenty of rest. During our sleep, our eyes rest and recover from the day. UV rays, dust, pollutants, and many other things can damage the eye. Having our eyes closed for 6 to 8 hours at a time washes our eyes with restorative fluid. People who sleep with their eyes open do not get the full benefit of this and experience the additional problem of having their protective reflexes slowed and their eyes exposed.
There are very few treatment options for people suffering from nocturnal lagophthalmos.
Typically, people with lagophthalmos will sleep with shades or some type of protective eye wear or they will put shields on their eyes to keep their lids closed.
However, the biggest reason people want to stop sleeping with their eyes open is that it tends to creep out family members.