An Overview of Sleep-Related Laryngospasm

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Sleep-related laryngospasm is a vocal cord spasm that takes place during sleep. The muscles and soft tissues surrounding the larynx, or voice box, contract or swell and narrow the passage, interrupting airflow.

An individual experiencing sleep-related laryngospasm may suddenly awaken with a choking sensation, breathing difficulties, and stridor, a high-pitched sound associated with a blocked airway.

This article discusses possible causes of sleep-related laryngospasm, including nocturnal heartburn, medication use, and viral infections. It also reviews symptoms, treatment options, and when to contact your healthcare provider.

For most individuals, sleep-related laryngospasms tend to only occur one to three times a year.

Causes of Sleep-Related Laryngospasm

Sleep-related laryngospasm is not always due to an underlying condition. However, when it is, it is often because something irritated the larynx.

It may be triggered by several conditions, including:

Less Common Causes

Less often, sleep-related laryngospasm may be associated with:

  • Night terrors, a sleep disturbance that most often impacts children and is associated with impaired breathing, a rapid heartbeat, and agitation
  • Seizures, a sudden, uncontrolled burst of electrical activity in the brain
  • Nighttime asthma, a condition that causes airway inflammation
  • Obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that causes interrupted breathing while an individual sleeps
  • Laryngeal cancer, or cancer in the tissues of the larynx

Symptoms of Sleep-Related Laryngospasm

Symptoms associated with sleep-related laryngospasm include:

  • One or multiple episodes that occur during sleep and last a few seconds to a few minutes
  • A suffocated, choking feeling
  • Feelings of fear and panic
  • Difficulty speaking and breathing
  • Stridor

A sleep-related laryngospasm episode can be terrifying and lead to an individual feeling scared to go to sleep at night.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

Because sleep-related laryngospasm episodes may be associated with other underlying conditions and can impact your ability to fall asleep, as well as your quality of sleep, it's important to contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you notice symptoms.


Treatment will vary depending on the underlying cause of your vocal cord spasms during sleep.

To determine the type of treatment that will work best for your needs, your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history, as well as conduct additional tests to determine the most likely cause.

They may also conduct a diagnostic sleep study for additional clarity.

Once you receive a diagnosis, your healthcare provider will recommend appropriate treatment options.

For example, if heartburn is triggering sleep-related laryngospasm, your healthcare provider may recommend lifestyle changes, antacids, or other medications.


Sleep-related laryngospasm episodes, or vocal cord spasms, are most often associated with heartburn, GERD, certain medications, and viral infections. Symptoms may include stridor, difficulty talking and breathing, as well as a choking feeling.

If you suspect you may have this condition, it's best to reach out to your healthcare provider as soon as possible so you can receive appropriate care.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. O’Shea, R., Gaffney, M., Kaare, M. et al. Laryngopharyngeal reflux induced sleep-related laryngospasmIr J Med Sci (2022). doi:10.1007/s11845-022-02934-x

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By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.