What Is Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is exactly what it sounds like: walking in one’s sleep. Also called somnambulism, sleepwalking can encompass other behaviors as well, including sitting up, talking, doing household chores and, in extreme cases, going outside or driving a car, all while in a state of unconsciousness. Sleepwalking is most common in children, generally harmless, and usually outgrown. It can, however, signal some underlying medical condition and represent a potential safety danger, including falls, burns, or occasional violent outbursts. 

What Are Sleepwalking Symptoms?

Sleepwalking and related behaviors usually occur in the early part of the sleep cycle, during the non-rapid eye movement or NREM phase. This is the deep sleep phase of rest, important in the formation of long-term memory. A typical episode might last between five and 15 minutes. During these spells, a sleepwalker may attempt to perform tasks requiring mental alertness while being in a state of low consciousness.

Sleepwalking symptoms can include:

  • Sitting up in bed with eyes open
  • Getting out of bed and moving around
  • Attempting to perform daily activities, such as cooking or cleaning
  • Talking without engaging an observer
  • Being unresponsive and difficult to wake up
  • On waking, being groggy, confused, and having no memory of what happened
  • Appearing clumsy and unfocused on the day following an event
  • Experiencing related sleep disorders, such as night terrors or restless legs syndrome

Isolated incidents of sleepwalking are not likely to be a problem. However, if they begin to occur frequently, involve risky behaviors, or lead to problems with focus and recall due to sleep deprivation, make plans to see your physician.

What Causes Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking can have several causes. One of these is hereditary. Studies have shown that children with one or both parents who sleepwalk are much more likely to exhibit similar behaviors than those who don’t. Sleepwalking also has an age bias, affecting youngsters more often than adults. 

Some causes are linked to living situations or behaviors:

  • Sleep deprivation or irregular sleep habits
  • Feelings of stress and anxiety
  • Drunkenness
  • Drug consumption, including sedatives, stimulants, antihistamines (for allergies), and neuroleptics (for psychological issues)

There are also a number of medical conditions associated with sleepwalking:

  • Fevers
  • Heartburn and acid reflux
  • Asthma
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Panic attacks, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric conditions

How Is Sleepwalking Diagnosed?

There are several steps in the diagnosis of sleepwalking:

  • Documentation of symptoms: Your physician will make a record of your symptoms, including the nature and frequency of your sleepwalking episodes. He or she may also conduct a physical exam to look for evidence of an underlying medical condition that is contributing to your somnambulism. 
  • Questioning an observer: Since you’re unconscious when you sleepwalk, your physician may want to question your spouse or another relevant individual who’s observed you during an episode. 
  • Sleep study: Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may be asked to undergo a sleep study. Brain waves, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, eye and limb movements, and other physiological behaviors will be monitored and recorded during a period of rest. Sleep studies of this type are typically conducted in specialized medical facilities. 

How Is Sleepwalking Treated?

Occasional sleepwalking rarely merits treatment. A chronic condition, on the other hand – especially one that presents suddenly in an adult – may reflect a more serious problem, and should be addressed by health-care professionals. 

There are two broad types of treatment available for sleepwalking: preventive care at home and medical care under the direction of your physician. 

Keeping Sleepwalkers Safe

Since one the major risks of sleepwalking is the possibility of accidental injury, there are several things you can do to reduce the risk of self-harm or harm to others:

Learn to control stress: Researchers have identified anxiety as one cause of sleepwalking. Talk out problems with a loved one or learn to control your stress reactions for a better night’s sleep.

Establish a pre-bedtime routine: Routines can help with stress. Try quiet activities before bedtime, as a means of calming yourself before sleep.

Decrease alcohol intake: One way not to deal with stress is to drink alcoholic beverages before bed. The consumption of beer, wine, or other spirits is thought to contribute to the incidence of sleepwalking.

Sleep longer and more regular hours: It’s ironic but sleepwalkers are often short on healthy, restful sleep. Sleeping longer hours on a regular basis can reduce the likelihood of chronic somnambulism. 

Create a safe household environment: Lessen the risk of accidental injury by creating a safe domestic environment. Close windows, lock doors, and clear all walkways of obstacles. If bedrooms are upstairs, install and close a gate at the head of the stairs. 

Help a sleepwalker back to bed: If someone in your family is sleepwalking, gently lead him or her back to bed. It’s a myth that awakening a sleepwalker is dangerous but it can cause that person to be agitated and disoriented.

Write down your observations: If a loved one falls into a sleepwalking pattern, make careful note of his or her behaviors. Your physician will find information of this type valuable in making a diagnosis.

Medical Treatments for Sleepwalking

Medical treatment for sleepwalking may involve:

  • Addressing associated health conditions: Sleepwalking is often linked to other sleep disorders. If your physician finds evidence for this, he or she will focus on that as a root cause of somnambulism. 
  • Pattern interruption: If sleepwalking episodes are occurring at similar times every night, it sometimes helps to interrupt the pattern by waking the patient a few minutes before each episode would normally begin. Your physician can help you identify if this is the case. 
  • Medication management: Your physician may prescribe certain medications for underlying conditions, such as depression, or adjust medications already being taken.
  • Counseling: Counselors can assist with the treatment of sleepwalking through the introduction of stress-reduction and relaxation techniques, including self-hypnosis.

Learn More About Sleepwalking from Baptist Health

Sleepwalking can be conquered. Start by scheduling an appointment with a Baptist Health primary care or sleep specialist today. 

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