Imagine waking up somewhere other than where you fell asleep and not remembering how you got there. That’s what may happen to people who sleepwalk. Sleepwalking involves performing a complex action, such as walking, while still asleep. Additional activities may also be performed during a sleepwalking episode. For example, some people who sleepwalk may go to the kitchen and eat or unlock a door and walk outside. Although uncommon, there have been incidences of sleepwalkers getting in their car and driving without waking up.
People who sleepwalk often remain in a deep state of sleep throughout their episode. Although it varies, sleepwalkers may not remember their sleepwalking episodes.
Sleepwalking is a parasomnia, which is a type of sleep disorder that involves abnormal behaviors or movements during sleep. Sleepwalking is not as rare a disorder as once thought. According to a study conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine, about 8.4 million people or about 3.6 percent of the population are prone to sleepwalking. Episodes of sleepwalking are most likely to occur a few hours after falling asleep. Sleepwalking episodes are typically brief only lasting a few minutes.
Although sleepwalking occurs in adults, it is more common in kids. Sleepwalking in children is usually not an indication of emotional problems. According to the Cleveland Clinic, most children who sleepwalk outgrow the behavior by their teen years.
What Causes Sleepwalking?
Sleepwalkers appear to be in an unusual state between wakefulness and sleep. But the person who is sleepwalking is truly asleep. As you sleep, you go through different stages including cycles of non-REM and REM sleep. As you enter the beginning of deep sleep, your brain produces slow delta waves, but you have not yet entered REM sleep. Sleepwalking is most likely to occur during this stage of non-REM, slow-wave sleep when it’s a little harder for you to be awakened.
Why some people sleepwalk is not fully understood, but researchers have discovered a few risk factors. For example, sleepwalking tends to run in families, which indicates a genetic link.
According to researchers at Stanford, people with certain psychiatric issues, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, have an increased risk of sleepwalking. Also, people who are prone to the disorder may be more likely to sleepwalk when they are sleep deprived, anxious or have an illness.
Symptoms of Sleepwalking
The signs of sleepwalking may be obvious. The most common sign is getting up from bed while still asleep and walking around. Additional symptoms of sleepwalking may include:
- Talking during sleep
- Acting confused after being awakened
- Not communicating with others when spoken to
- A glossy-eyed expression
A diagnosis of sleepwalking is usually made by a family member, roommate or partner’s account of the sleepwalker’s behavior. In some cases, a physician may want to rule out psychological issues that may be associated with an increased risk of sleepwalking. Also, if a sleep disorder is suspected, a sleep study may be recommended.
Treatment of Sleepwalking
In many cases, no specific treatment is required for sleepwalking, especially for children. Most doctors recommend parents create a safe environment, so kids don’t get hurt rather than treating sleepwalking itself.
If children do not outgrow sleepwalking by their teen years or they are at risk of injury during episodes, it’s best to talk to your child’s doctor. Although medication is not usually recommended for children who sleepwalk, improved sleep habits or scheduled awakenings may be options.
Treatment for adults who sleepwalk may also not be needed. But if sleepwalking is leading to unusual or negative behavior during sleep, such as leaving the house or driving, treatment be advised. Medication is sometimes used to decrease episodes of sleepwalking. For instance, antidepressants or medication to treat anxiety may be prescribed for sleepwalking that’s a problem.
If an additional underlying sleep disorder is present, it could be contributing to fatigue and sleepwalking. Treating the disorder may reduce sleepwalking and improve overall sleep and wellbeing.
People who sleepwalk can also take certain measures to improve their sleep quality and prevent sleep deprivation. For example, doing relaxation exercises before bed to reduce stress and limiting alcohol may minimize sleepwalking episodes.
One important factor is to make sure the environment is safe for sleepwalkers, so they don’t injure themselves during a sleepwalking incident. For instance, minimize the risk of tripping and falling by moving obstacles and clutter.
The good news is for most people sleepwalking is not an indication of a serious disorder. Sleepwalking often goes away on its own or with improved sleep habits.
Is it OK to wake someone who is sleepwalking? It is a myth that you should not wake someone who is sleepwalking because it will cause a serious problem, such as a heart attack. Gently guiding a sleepwalker back to bed is fine. Keep in mind; someone is awoken during sleepwalking may be startled and appear disoriented for a moment.
Can I prevent sleepwalking? Sleepwalking may not always be preventable. But people are more likely to sleepwalk if they are overly tired. Sleepwalking may decrease if you get enough rest. Developing good habits can improve the quality of your sleep. For example, limit naps to 30 minutes, get enough sunlight during the day and avoid stimulants, such as caffeine several hours before bed. If possible, try to go to sleep and wake up around the same time each day to get into a natural sleep rhythm.
Is sleepwalking dangerous? Sleepwalking itself is not necessarily dangerous. But in some cases, sleepwalkers can injure themselves during an episode. If sleepwalking leads to prolonged disruption of sleep, it can also lead to fatigue and daytime sleepiness.
How can I keep my child safe if they sleepwalk? If your child sleepwalks, creating a safe environment is the most important factor. To keep your child out of harm’s way consider removing clutter in their path, installing gates on stairways and make sure windows and doors are locked. Also, don’t let your child sleep on the top bunk of bunk beds if he is a sleepwalker.
Author: MaryAnn DePietro, CRT is a medical writer and licensed respiratory therapist with over a decade of clinical experience.
Cleveland Clinic. Sleepwalking; Symptoms, Causes and Treatment Options. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/sleepwalking Retrieved May 2017.
Stanford University School of Medicine. Sleepwalking More Prevalent Among U.S. Adults Than Previously Suspected. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2012/05/sleepwalking-more-prevalent-among-u-s-adults-than-previously-suspected-researcher-says.html Retrieved May 2017.
Mayo Clinic. Treatments. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleepwalking/basics/treatment/con-20031795 Retrieved May 2017.