Sleep Walking or Somnambulism
Sleep walking, also known as somnambulism, is a sleep disorder whereby a person gets up whilst still in the sleep state and performs activities that are normally performed by a person during a state of full consciousness. As the name implies, this often involves a person getting up and walking around the house.
The sleepwalker remains in a deep sleep during this phenomenon and usually has no recollection of their night time wanderings. If a sleep walker is woken up, they are often confused and surprised to find themselves in a different location and not tucked up in their beds.
Although often seen as quite amusing , if a little creepy, by others, sleep walking can pose a real danger to both the sleepwalker and those around them. Indeed, there are cases of the sleep walker waking up in a dangerous location, committing murder in their sleep and even having sex (sexsomnia). If you or a loved one sleepwalk regularly some basic caution should be taken to ensure safety:-
Doors, gates and windows should also be kept locked overnight. Sleepwalkers should not be left alone. You should try to wake the sleepwalker and if this proves too difficult then you should stay with them whilst gently trying to guide them back to bed.
Signs and Symptoms of sleepwalking
• Walking or carrying out daily activities whilst asleep.
• Difficulty in waking up the sleepwalker.
• Sleep Talking: Screaming, yelling, talking, whispering or mumbling whilst asleep.
• Acting out of character, for example getting aggressive when somebody is trying to wake them up.
• Bed wetting.
• No recollection of the sleepwalking incident.
Causes of Sleepwalking
Sleep walking is most common in young children under the age of 10 years, but in some cases, it can continue into adulthood.
It is thought that bed wetting in children may be an indicator or symptom of sleepwalking.
Sleep walking tends to be hereditary, or runs in families so if you sleepwalked as a child then it is more likely that your children will.
Sleep walking has found to be induced by certain behaviors which affect the good sleeping habits. These include:
• Sleep deprivation: This is a common situation in modern times as more and more people do not get adequate hours of sleep. Work and study pressures, running a house and family and having time for leisure often mean that people tend to skip a few hours sleep.
• Inefficient or interrupted sleep: Other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, night terrors and sleep paralysis may contribute to a person not getting enough sleep.
• Medication: Some prescribed medicines increase the risk of sleepwalking. Neuroleptic (anti-psychotic) drugs, antihistamines (anti-allergy) and sedative-hypnotics have all been linked to sleepwalking.
• Medical Conditions: Some medical conditions are associated with sleepwalking. Infections and viruses that result in a fever, heart burn, epilepsy and night time asthma to name but a few.
Treatment for Sleepwalking
Usually it is not necessary to undergo any treatment for sleepwalking.
If sleepwalking becomes a real problem, is increasing in frequency, or causing safety concerns than seek a medical opinion to rule out any underlying sleep disorders and medical or emotional conditions such as extreme anxiety.
Maintain good sleep hygiene. To understand more of the ways in which you can improve your sleep see our Top Tips for a healthy night’s sleep.
Hypnosis may be effective in reducing or stopping sleepwalking.
In severe cases, medication may be indicated to help combat sleepwalking. Benzodiazepines, such as Clonazepam, or antidepressants, have been shown to be useful in the treatment of sleepwalking. Although it is useful to note that SSRI Anti-depressant use is itself linked with an increased incidence of sleepwalking.
Questions and Answers
What stage of sleep does sleep walking usually happen in?
You would guess that sleep walking takes place during the rem sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of the sleep cycle. However, sleep walking most often takes place during non-rem sleep or deep slow-wave sleep.
It can occur in the rem sleep stage, but these incidents are more likely to occur in the morning before waking.
Is it true that you should never wake a sleepwalker?
It used to be thought that it was dangerous to wake a sleepwalker because the shock would kill them. This is a common misconception that is NOT true. Waking a sleepwalker will not cause them to have a heart attack or suffer any brain damage.
However, the sleep walker, if suddenly woken up, may still be acting out dreams. There is a risk of violent behavior to others or themselves or confusion on waking (confusional arousal).
The best course of action is to gently lead the sleepwalker back to bed if possible. If not and they are at risk of harm then try and awake them from a distance.