What causes sleepwalking? 8 possible conditions
Also known as somnambulism, sleepwalking is a condition where a person walks or moves around as if he or she is awake while asleep. Sleepwalkers may perform a variety of activities while asleep, including getting dressed, going to the bathroom, or moving furniture.
This condition most commonly occurs in children. Because sleepwalking can lead to falls and injuries, seeking treatment and taking safety measures around your home are vital if you or someone you live with experiences this behavior.
Sleepwalking most commonly occurs in children ages 4 to 8. It is most likely to take place during deep non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and early in the night—about one to two hours after going to sleep.
Symptoms can vary from person to person, but may include:
- sitting up in bed and opening and closing your eyes
- having a glazed-over or glassy expression in your eyes
- walking around your home performing everyday activities, such as turning the lights on or off
- speaking or moving in a way that does not make sense
According to the National Sleep Foundation, you can and should awaken a sleepwalker while he or she is sleepwalking, but do so gently so as not to startle him or her (Mahowald). However, a sleepwalking person is typically difficult to wake and will at first be confused as to where he or she is. Gently lead the individual back to his or her bed.
Most sleepwalkers do not remember their sleepwalking episodes.
Sleepwalking does not typically occur during a nap because the sleep achieved is not deep enough.
Sleepwalking can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, or migraine headaches. Your doctor may wish to test you for these treatable conditions.
Sleepwalking does have a genetic link. If your parents have a history of sleepwalking, chances are you may sleepwalk as well.
In rare cases, certain medications can cause sleepwalking. These include the sleep medication zolpidem, known by the brand names Ambien and Edluar.
Because you are not as aware of your surroundings when you are asleep, you risk injuring yourself, particularly by tripping and falling. If you are prone to sleepwalking, you may need to evaluate your home for potential hazards that could lead to tripping. This includes taping electrical cords against the wall, locking doors and windows before going to bed, and keeping furniture out of any pathways. If you have an upstairs bedroom, you also may need to gate off your stairs to prevent falling down them.
Sleepwalking is not always cause for concern, and most children do grow out of it. However, if your sleepwalking has led to injury or if you frequently experience several sleepwalking episodes in a row, you may want to see a physician to rule out any potential medical conditions that may be causing the problem.
Make a sleep diary to help you prepare for your appointment. You can write down which foods or drinks you consumed before sleeping, how long you slept, and any other symptoms you experienced while sleepwalking.
Because you may not be aware of the full extent of your sleepwalking symptoms, talk to others in your household about your sleepwalking patterns. Ask them to describe your symptoms, and record these in your sleep diary as well.
If your doctor suspects you may have a sleep disorder, he or she may recommend undergoing a sleep study. This involves sleep specialists monitoring your brain waves, heart rhythms, and other vital signs while you are asleep. This information can help your doctor diagnose any potential sleep disorders.
Certain factors seem to decrease the likelihood that a sleepwalking episode will occur. These include lifestyle changes, such as minimizing stress, anxiety, or conflict. Doing something that relaxes you before going to sleep, such as reading a book, listening to music, or taking a warm bath, may help to reduce your chances of a sleepwalking episode.
Severe exhaustion can also lead to sleepwalking. Making every effort to get enough sleep at night can help. It may help to make a sleep schedule (going to bed and waking at the same time) a priority. Also, avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol before going to bed. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that can actually trigger sleepwalking.
Medication and other medical treatments for sleepwalking typically are not necessary. If you have a child who is prone to sleepwalking, you can gently redirect him or her back to bed.
Treating the underlying medical condition causing sleepwalking, such as restless leg syndrome, may help to minimize sleepwalking episodes. This is why you may want to see your doctor if sleepwalking is a persistent issue. You will want to ensure that there is no underlying medical issue causing the problem.
If your sleepwalking continues, medications such as benzodiazepines or antidepressants may help to reduce sleepwalking episodes. Benzodiazepines are medications commonly used to treat anxiety, but they have also been found useful in treating sleep disorders as well. The benzodiazepines clonazepam (Klonopin) and diazepam (Valium), in particular, have been found useful in reducing sleepwalking episodes. Antidepressants and benzodiazepines may both help to reduce an individual’s stress and anxiety—factors that increase an individual’s likelihood of sleepwalking.
Hypnosis, an alternative therapy, has also been found helpful to some sleepwalking patients. Hypnosis involves bringing an individual into a very relaxed and focused state of mind. Then the therapist will make healthy suggestions that are tailored to the individual’s medical issue. The belief is that these suggestions will sink into the individual’s consciousness in a deeper, more meaningful way because the individual is more open to receiving them.
- Doghramji, K. (2008, March). Parasomnias. The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook for Patients & Caregivers. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/brain_spinal_cord_and_nerve_disorders/sleep_disorders/parasomnias.html
- Dugdale III, D. C., & Zieve, D. (2011, May 22). Sleepwalking. PubMed Health. Retrieved July 16, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001811/
- Mahowald, M. (n.d.). Sleepwalking. National Sleep Foundation. Retrieved July 16, 2012, from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-related-problems/sleepwalking
- Sleepwalking. (2011, August 12). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 16, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sleepwalking/DS01009/METHOD=print
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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