Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, occurs most often in children 6 to 12 years old and is generally benign, although repeated episodes deserve investigation. The subject appears awake, but is not, and will not remember his actions.
This is a sleep disorder characterized by walking or other activity while seemingly still asleep. Other names for it are walking during sleep and somnambulism.
The normal sleep cycle involves distinct stages from light drowsiness to deep sleep. in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the eyes move rapidly and vivid dreaming is most common. During the night, there will be several cycles of non-REM and REM sleep. Sleepwalking most often occurs during deep non-REM sleep (stage 3 or stage 4 sleep) early in the night. It can occur during REM sleep near morning.
Sleepwalking may include simply sitting up and appearing awake while actually asleep, getting up and walking around, or complex activities such as moving furniture, going to the bathroom, dressing and undressing, and similar activities. Some people even drive a car while actually asleep. The episode can be very brief (a few seconds) or it can last 30 minutes or longer.
It is not dangerous to awaken a sleepwalker, although it is common for the person to be confused or disoriented for a short time upon awakening. Another misconception is that a person cannot be injured when sleepwalking. Actually, injuries—caused by tripping and loss of balance—are common for sleepwalkers.
Sleepwalking occurs at any age, but it occurs most often in children 6 to 12 years old. It may occur in younger children, in adults, or in the elderly, and it appears to run in families.
In children, the cause is usually unknown but may also be related to fatigue, prior sleep loss, fever, or anxiety. In adults, sleepwalking is usually associated with a disorder of the mind but may also be seen with reactions to drugs and/or medications and alcohol, and medical conditions such as partial complex seizures. In the elderly, sleepwalking may be a symptom of an organic brain syndrome or REM behavior disorders.
Usually, no further examination and testing are necessary. If sleepwalking is frequent or persistent, examination to rule out other disorders (such as partial complex seizures) may be appropriate. It may also be appropriate to undergo a psychological evaluation to determine causes such as excessive anxiety or stress, or medical evaluation to rule out other causes.
Usually no specific treatment for sleepwalking is needed.
Safety measures may be necessary to prevent injury. This may include modifying the environment by moving objects such as electrical cords or furniture to reduce tripping and falling.
In some cases, short-acting tranquilizers have been helpful in reducing the incidence of sleepwalking.
Sleepwalking may or may not become less frequent with age. It usually does not indicate a serious disorder, although it can be a symptom of other disorders. Improving sleep cycle may help decrease occurrence of sleepwalking.
Avoid the use of alcohol or central nervous system depressants if prone to sleepwalking.
Avoid fatigue or insomnia, because this can instigate an episode of sleepwalking.
Avoid or minimize stress, anxiety, and conflict, which can worsen the condition.
Tips for a Good Night's Sleep
Set a schedule:
Last reviewed 02/17/2015