Sleep Walking

Sleepwalking is a relatively uncommon sleep disorder, in which the subject gets out of bed and walks around, often performing routine actions while still sleeping or being in a sleep like state. It falls under the parasomnia category, which relates to any form of unconscious actions performed while sleeping.

Sleepwalking is most common in children, with studies showing that anywhere from 3% to 17% of children engage in sleepwalking at some point, and is evenly distributed between boys and girls. It peaks between the ages of 10 and 12. It rarely continues on into adulthood, and is even more unlikely to first develop in adulthood. Under 1% of adults sleepwalk, and less than half of these developed it as an adult. Of adults, males are more likely to sleepwalk than females, or are also more likely to engage in potentially dangerous or violent activity while sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking is often misunderstood as the subject performing the physical actions of a dream. Most sleepwalking in fact occurs early in the sleeping phase, before the deep sleep or REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep has set in, which is necessary to achieve a dreaming state.

Sleepwalking is often harmless, but could lead the subject to accidentally injure themselves through an unforeseen action. Most recorded cases of sleepwalking chronicle the subject as having performed routine actions such as simply walking around, going to the bathroom, doing chores around the house, and eating. Some sleepwalkers may perform odd actions that they would not normally do while awake, such as climb out of windows, run around shouting, urinate in odd places and rearrange furniture. Very rare cases have seen sleepwalkers drive cars, have sexual intercourse with strangers and even commit murder, for which the sleepwalker in question was acquitted of the charges due to his state.

Sleepwalkers eyes are usually open, with a glassy look to them, which can be discomforting to someone witnessing their actions. It is extremely difficult to wake sleepwalkers from their state, and has been advised against, as it could cause the sleepwalker to irrationally and unconsciously lash out at the person attempting to wake them.

The sleepwalking state can end abruptly at any time, leaving the sleepwalker confused and disoriented. Sleepwalkers may also return to their beds and continue to sleep, unaware of anything that occurred. When sleepwalkers do awaken, most will have no recollection of what happened. Some may recall limited portions of it, though it will be somewhat indistinguishable from an actual dream, while others will be fully aware of their actions.

Contrary to adult sleepwalking, sleepwalking in children is more calm, and they will rarely do anything out of the ordinary. They may attempt to leave the house though, and could fall down stairs, so setting up measures to protect your sleepwalking child from harming themselves is important. Children who sleepwalk, or who may be at a high risk of developing sleepwalking often talk in their sleep, or have sleep terrors.

Children born to a family with a history of sleepwalking are 2 to 3 times more likely to also begin sleepwalking. The causes of sleepwalking are many, and share many similarities with sleep terrors, which explains why many people experience both sleep disorders at some point in their lives rather than just one or the other. Some of the causes for sleepwalking may include a head injury, encephalitis, hyperthyroidism, stress, obstructive sleep apnea or other sleeping disorders, fevers, some medications, and alcohol.

As many with the disorder have no recollection of their actions, it can go undetected for a long time. In most cases, sleepwalking in children will be detected fairly early, as children routinely go to bed earlier than their parents, and are likely to begin their episode before the parents have themselves gone to sleep. When it develops in adulthood, it can be more difficult to detect, especially in cases of sleepwalkers who live alone. Someone who suspects they may be sleepwalking due to mysterious circumstances around their house such as items being inexplicably moved, food missing, or other strange occurrences, may want to discuss it with a sleep specialist, or install a video camera in their room at night to try and catch any sleepwalking activities.

A sleep specialist will almost certainly recommend a polysomnogram to try and catch the sleepwalking, and detect any other sleeping disorders that may exist.

Sleepwalking does have a treatment or cure in a traditional sense. Most sleepwalking episodes in children will go away as they get older. The best way to limit the number of episodes of sleepwalking is to practice good sleep hygiene, and have any other sleeping disorders identified and looked after. Attaining REM sleep severely reduces the amount of parasomnias that will occur in an individual, including sleepwalking.

For those living with a sleepwalker, it is advised to try and gently guide them back to bed, or help them accomplish whatever task it was that they got up for. Cleaning is a common task performed by sleepwalkers, and helping them finish the task will often lead to them returning to their bed sooner.


Reviewed September, 2007


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