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Sleepwalking is a bizarre behavior that occurs when one is asleep. Let us learn more about this condition.

What is Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is a condition where a person gets up and carries out activities in the state sleep. This condition was formally known as somnambulism or noctambulism. This sleep disorder belongs to the Parasomnia family. The person suffering sleepwalking is called as a sleepwalker.

A sleepwalker can carry out activities as simple as sitting up in bed or using the bathroom. However, in many cases, they can also carry out many dangerous activities such as driving, cooking and some even claim to have carried out a murder while sleepwalking!

Symptoms of Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking occurs during deep sleep and is more common in children than adults. Children in the age bracket of 4 to 8 years, usually experience sleepwalking. Sleepwalkers are in deep sleep, so it is very difficult to wake them up. And when they wake up they will not remember the incident.

During sleep the sleepwalker carries out a series of complex behaviors. Some of the symptoms of sleepwalking include:

  • Talking in sleep (sleeptalking)
  • Difficulty in waking up the sleepwalker during the episode
  • Inappropriate behavior like urinating in odd places like the refrigerator or closet (especially in children)
  • Screaming
  • Walking around the house
  • Leaving the house and walking on the road
  • Driving
  • Sitting up in bed or a chair and simply looking around

The sleepwalkers eyes will be open, but will have a glazed look. Their expression will be dimmer and the episode lasts for about 30 seconds to up to 30 minutes in some cases.

Causes of Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking is found to be an inherited autosomal dominant disorder. This means, if one of the parent sleepwalks, there is a chance the child may too. Many experts believe, a delay in maturation of the central nervous system can cause sleepwalking. Other precipitating factors that can lead to sleepwalking include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Fever
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Use of drugs such as neuroleptics or hypnotics
  • Stress
  • Drug and alcohol consumption
  • Irregular sleep schedules

Is Sleepwalking Dangerous?

Sleepwalking in itself is not dangerous. However, the potential hazards a person can fall into due to sleepwalking makes the episode dangerous. The sleepwalker may have his or her eyes open. But, they see things differently than those who are awake around them. They may feel they are in a different room, situation or location. They may open up the windows, climb down the stairs and even start the car. The sleepwalker may trip down the stairs or cause a motor vehicle accident causing harm to themselves and others as well. Sometimes they may walk into the kitchen and pick up a knife. A sleepwalker may even attack a person violently trying to wake them up. Such activities make sleepwalking dangerous.

Diagnosis of Sleepwalking

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People who live alone will never realize they sleepwalk as they won’t remember the episode when they wake up. In most cases, it is the partner, parents, roommates or other family members who realize a person sleepwalks.

The doctor may conduct psychological as well as physical tests to check if the person suffers from sleepwalking or any other condition like panic attacks, nighttime seizures, etc.

A sleep study called polysomnogram will be conducted to check the brain waves, blood oxygen level, breathing and heart rate. Eye movement as well as leg movements will be noticed during the study. This will help the doctor understand if one suffers from sleep disorders.

Treatment for Sleepwalking

There is no specific treatment to cure sleepwalking. In many cases, where an occasional episode of sleepwalking does not require any kind of treatment. Children who sleepwalk outgrow this condition in their teen years.

In case, the child continues to sleepwalk in the teen years or an adult sleepwalks, one may have to seek medical help. The doctor may find the person suffering from, a medical condition that disturbs sleep or a mental health disorder that requires treatment. If a drug causes sleepwalking, the doctor may change the prescription. In case of children, the parents may have to follow anticipatory awakenings. This means, the child will have to be woken up every 15 minutes and kept awake for 5 minutes, before being allowed to fall back to sleep. This prevents the child from falling into the cycle of sleepwalking.

Hypnosis is another way to treat sleepwalking. Use of sedative-hypnotics or antidepressants in adults also help reduce the occurrence of sleepwalking in some cases.

One should keep away from triggers such as drugs and alcoholto prevent sleepwalking. In case of children, give them a relaxing environment and create a regular bedtime routine to reduce the episodes. Make sure the doors and windows are locked and you keep all sharp and dangerous objects away from the sleepwalker.

Written by: Saptakee sengupta
Date last updated: April 07, 2015

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