There are no tests routinely done to diagnose nightmare disorder. Nightmares are only considered a disorder if disturbing dreams cause you distress or keep you from getting enough sleep. To diagnose nightmare disorder, your doctor reviews your medical history and your symptoms. Your evaluation may include:
- Exam. You may have a physical exam to identify any conditions that may be contributing to the nightmares. If your recurrent nightmares indicate underlying anxiety, the doctor may refer you to a mental health professional.
- Symptoms discussion. Nightmare disorder is usually diagnosed based on your description of your experiences. Your doctor may ask about your family history of sleep problems. Your doctor may also ask you or your partner about your sleep behaviors and discuss the possibility of other sleep disorders, if indicated.
- Nocturnal sleep study (polysomnography). 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. Sensors placed on your body will record and monitor your brain waves, the oxygen level in your blood, heart rate and breathing, as well as eye and leg movements while you sleep. You may be videotaped to document your behavior during sleep cycles.
Treatment for nightmares isn’t usually necessary. However, treatment may be needed if the nightmares are causing you distress or sleep disturbance and interfering with your daytime functioning.
The cause of the nightmare disorder helps determine treatment. Treatment options may include:
- Medical treatment. If the nightmares are associated with an underlying medical condition, treatment is aimed at the underlying problem.
- Stress or anxiety treatment. If a mental health condition, such as stress or anxiety, seems to be contributing to the nightmares, your doctor may suggest stress-reduction techniques, counseling or therapy with a mental health professional.
- 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 reduce the frequency of nightmares.
- Medication. Medication is rarely used to treat nightmares. However, medication may be recommended for severe nightmares associated with PTSD.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If nightmares are a problem for you or your child, try these strategies:
- Establish a regular, relaxing routine before bedtime. A consistent bedtime routine is important. Do quiet, calming activities — such as reading books, doing puzzles or soaking in a warm bath — before bed. Meditation, deep breathing or relaxation exercises may help, too. Also, make the bedroom comfortable and quiet for sleep.
- Offer reassurances. If your child is struggling with nightmares, be patient, calm and reassuring. After your child awakens from a nightmare, respond quickly and soothe your child at the bedside. This may prevent future nightmares.
- Talk about the dream. Ask your child to describe the nightmare. What happened? Who was in the dream? What made it scary? Then remind your child that nightmares aren’t real and can’t hurt you.
- Rewrite the ending. Imagine a happy ending for the nightmare. Encourage your child to draw a picture of the nightmare, “talk” to the characters in the nightmare or write about the nightmare in a journal. Sometimes a little creativity can help.
- Put stress in its place. If stress or anxiety is an issue, talk about it. Practice some simple stress-relief activities, such as deep breathing or relaxation. A mental health professional can help, if needed.
- Provide comfort measures. Your child might feel more secure if he or she sleeps with a favorite stuffed animal, blanket or other comfort object. Leave your child’s door open at night so that he or she won’t feel alone. Leave your door open, too, in case your child needs comfort during the night.
- Use a night light. Keep a night light on in your child’s room. If your child wakes up during the night, the light may be reassuring.
Preparing for your appointment
If nightmares cause concerns about sleep disturbance or underlying conditions, consider seeing a doctor. The doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist or a mental health professional.
Keeping a sleep diary for two weeks before your appointment may help your doctor understand more about your sleep schedule, factors affecting your sleep and when nightmares occur. In the morning, record as much as you know of bedtime rituals, quality of sleep, and so on. At the end of the day, record behaviors that may affect sleep, such as sleep schedule disruptions, alcohol intake and any medications taken.
You may want to bring a family member or friend along, if possible, to provide additional information.
What you can do
Before your appointment, make a list of:
- Any symptoms experienced, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for the appointment
- Key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes
- All medications, vitamins, herbs or other supplements being taken, and the dosages
- Questions to ask the doctor to help make the most of your time together
Some questions to ask the doctor may include:
- What is likely causing these symptoms?
- What are other possible causes?
- What kinds of tests are needed?
- Is the condition likely temporary or chronic?
- What is the best course of action?
- What are the alternatives to the primary approach you’re suggesting?
- Are there any restrictions that need to be followed?
- Do you recommend seeing a specialist?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can have? What websites do you recommend?
Don’t hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
The doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Be ready to answer them to reserve time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:
- When did symptoms begin?
- How often do the nightmares occur, and what are they about?
- What is the usual bedtime routine?
- Is there a history of sleep problems?
- Does anyone else in your family have sleep problems?