Updated February 14, 2021Sleepwalking, sometimes called somnambulism, is a behavioral disorder that occurs while the person is asleep. It is one condition in a broader category of parasomnias, which are abnormal occurrences while falling asleep or during the sleep cycle.When a person sleepwalks, they may perform complex behaviors like navigating stairs and opening doors despite remaining asleep the whole time. People who sleepwalk do not remember the experience. Sleepwalking can occur once in a lifetime, or it could be a weekly event.Although it can be dangerous, mainly if the sleepwalker falls, eats, leaves the house, drives a car, or performs other complex actions, sleepwalking is not associated with any specific underlying mental, emotional, or physical condition. There are some common triggers for sleepwalking, including being sleep deprived. There may also be a genetic component to the disorder.Children are more likely than adults to sleepwalk, most often between the ages of three and seven. Night terrors are another common parasomnia among children and both tend to run in families. Children whose parents were sleepwalkers are more likely to have night terrors, and vice versa.Signs & Triggers of SleepwalkingSleepwalking, as the name suggests, occurs when an individual gets out of bed and walks around while being completely asleep.Typically, sleepwalking begins during deep sleep, part of the non-rapid eye movement (nREM) stage of sleep, although sleepwalking can also occur during the lighter stages of nREM too. Sometimes, the person sleepwalking is partially aroused from sleep during the episode.The sleepwalking episode may last only a few seconds or for more than 30 minutes. It typically occurs in the first half of the night, and typically begins out of nREM stage 3 sleep.Aside from walking while fast asleep, sleepwalking has other symptoms, including:Sitting up in bed with eyes open.Having a glazed, glassy expression while sitting up or moving around.Talking in one’s sleep, often responding to questions as though conscious or babbling.Little or no memory of the sleepwalking event happening.Being in a deep sleep, so it is difficult to rouse the person out of sleepwalking.Screaming, especially when this parasomnia overlaps with sleep terrors.Thrashing or violent attacks on the person attempting to wake the sleepwalker.Being disoriented or confused for a few minutes after waking up.Difficulty functioning after the episode due to lost sleep.Although sleepwalking is predominantly idiopathic, with a potential genetic or family history component, some environmental factors can increase the risk of sleepwalking episodes. These include:Being sleep deprived, which can also impact your daily performance.Sedative drugs like anti-anxiety medications.Being sick with a high fever.Dramatic changes to circadian rhythm due to shift work or long-distance travel.Sleep-disordered breathing, like obstructive sleep apnea.Restless legs syndrome, which is a different sleep disorder.Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).Some conditions may be confused with sleepwalking, such as:Nighttime seizures.Panic attacks.Night terrors.REM Behavior Disorder.Myths About SleepwalkingThere are several myths about sleepwalking that can prevent people from getting the help they need. Misinformation about sleepwalking puts people at risk for ongoing incidents, increasing sleep loss, and potential physical harm.The following are common myths associated with sleepwalking:Incidents are random. People are more likely to have a family history of sleepwalking, with about 80 percent of people who experience sleepwalking regularly reporting that other relatives sleepwalk. Twin studies have found that it is five times more common for identical twins to both sleepwalk, compared to fraternal twins. People who sleepwalk also have triggers like stress, which can be detected and managed with practice.Sleepwalking is dangerous. While it can be physically risky for some people to sleepwalk, most symptoms only include sitting up and wandering around the room. It is rare for this parasomnia to lead to driving a car or performing other complex tasks. However, if you or a loved one is known to sleepwalk, removing tripping hazards or sharp objects is helpful.Sleepwalkers do not remember the incident. This is often true, especially if the person sleeps alone; however, some people can have some recall of the sleepwalking events, particularly if they are awakened during them. Adults may remember what they did while they were sleepwalking, although this could take some prompting.Actions performed while sleepwalking are random. Although actions may appear random at first, they are often associated with routines a person has or dream-like hallucinations that occur during the half-awake state.There is no effect during the day. About 45 percent of sleepwalkers report being drowsy during the day due to a loss of high-quality sleep.You should not wake up a sleepwalker. Although some people who sleepwalk may thrash if they are touched, appear irritated or upset, or even attack someone trying to wake them up, it is not harmful to the person who is sleepwalking— especially if they are about to do something that could hurt them. If you are concerned about the sleepwalker lashing out at you, try guiding them back to bed gently.How to Diagnose SleepwalkingGetting help from a doctor to understand sleepwalking can help you manage this condition, although you don’t necessarily need to seek treatment unless you are concerned for your safety during sleepwalking activities.People who live alone are less likely to know if they sleepwalk. To aid with diagnosis and rule out other conditions, your doctor may recommend polysomnography, which is a nocturnal sleep study that monitors your brain waves, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, and breathing rate. You may also be filmed while you sleep, so your sleepwalking behaviors can be documented to understand if you are at risk of physically hurting yourself or others.Occasional episodes of sleepwalking, regardless of age, are not a cause for concern. Even if the person sleepwalks several times over the course of a week or two, this may be related to stress and can resolve on its own. However, causes for concern associated with sleepwalking include:Instances occurring one or two times per week for several weeks.Sleepwalking occurring several times per night.Complex behaviors being performed during the parasomnia, like driving.Ongoing sleep deprivation that leads to problems functioning while awake.Instances of sleepwalking continuing throughout adolescence and the teenage years.Sleepwalking beginning during adulthood, especially for middle-aged or older adults.Working with a doctor can help to diagnose and rule out other potential conditions, like the onset of dementia or other sleep disorders like REM behavior disorder (RBD).Many of the symptoms of RBD are similar to those of sleepwalking, but the person performs sleepwalking actions at a different part of their sleep cycle. Rather than getting up in the first couple hours after going to sleep, RBD begins during the REM stage or dream state. The person will typically act out their dreams if they get up during this time.RBD is associated with the brain not paralyzing the body during REM. It can be related to the onset of neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease.Treating SleepwalkingSince environmental factors do not trigger most instances of sleepwalking, there are few treatments available to manage the condition. “However, if you have difficulty managing sleepwalking on your own, and you think it poses a significant danger for you, you may consider discussing this with your primary care provider or a sleep specialist,” says Dr. Jessee Dietch, a clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine.Sleepwalking can increase sleep deprivation, which may feed into increased instances of sleepwalking. As a result, many doctors may recommend sleep hygiene practices. Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, including weekends and holidays, can help your body get used to resting for a specific amount of time.Other approaches that can work with, or instead of, sleep hygiene, include:Monitor personal patterns. If you feel stressed, have a migraine, or lose sleep, these may trigger an episode of sleepwalking. Keep a sleep journal and report potential triggers, so that you can manage these environmental influences better. This can include stress-management techniques like getting regular exercise, practicing breathing exercises, and taking relaxing baths.Practice anticipatory awakenings. You can set an alarm for yourself (or your partner or child) to wake up about 15 minutes before you usually begin sleepwalking. Then, stay awake for a few minutes before trying to go back to sleep again. Dividing up sleep cycles in this way may mean the person requires longer amounts of rest.Try hypnosis: Some people report that hypnosis works to stop or significantly reduce incidents of sleepwalking. Trained professionals study parasomnias like sleepwalking and use hypnosis to change unwanted behaviors. Those specializing in hypnosis believe that the induced deep state of relaxation allows the individual’s subconscious to receive suggestions to change behaviors like sleepwalking. Therapists and counselors have more information on these techniques. They can also advise sleepwalkers on cognitive-behavioral approaches to manage stress, reduce sleep deprivation, and regulate their sleep schedule.You may also need to make some changes to your home if you or your child are at risk of physical harm from sleepwalking. The following can prevent potential injuries:Close and lock all windows and exterior doors.Consider getting a door or window alarm.Block stairs with childproof gates.Move electrical cords or other tripping hazards out of the way.Keep fragile or sharp objects well out of reach.Move your bedroom to the ground floor, if necessary.Other environmental factors include adjusting the height of your bed or mattress. If you are concerned about hurting yourself, a new bedframe that is lower to the ground may help. Finding your best mattress can also help.Life events typically cause stress, but your body may be under stress if there are too many allergens, like dust mites or pet hair, lurking in your old mattress. If you are changing your bedroom to be safer during sleepwalking incidents, replacing your mattress can also reduce your stress and improve the quality of your sleep.This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional. 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