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Parasomnias: Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking refers to a type of sleep disorder that involves walking while in a deep sleep. But despite the name, sleepwalking can actually refer to more than that.

The term can also be used for performing other activities while deep in sleep, such as sitting up in bed, opening the refrigerator, preparing food, or even driving while asleep. But walking around the house while in deep sleep is one of the most common activities performed.

Sleepwalking can be dangerous not only to the person performing the sleepwalking, but to others in the home. Because the person is in deep sleep throughout the episode, he or she usually will not have any memory of the activity.

Facts about sleepwalking

Sleepwalking is much more common in children than in adults. A recent survey found that around 1 percent of preschool children and 2 percent of school-aged children sleepwalk at least a few nights each week.

But it can happen to adults, as well. Common triggers for sleepwalking include the use of sedative agents like alcohol and some medications. Also, people who are sleep deprived may sometimes sleepwalk.

Types of sleepwalking

Sleepwalking can differ slightly depending on when it occurs at night:

  • Deep sleep sleepwalking. This is the most common type of sleepwalking and occurs while you are engaged in deep sleep. It happens later in the evening or in the early morning. People usually have no memory of this type of sleepwalking.

  • Light sleep sleepwalking. In rarer instances, people sleepwalk in the lighter sleep stages. This happens within a few hours of falling asleep. They may be partially awake during the episode.

Symptoms

The symptoms of sleepwalking go beyond just walking while in deep sleep. These are other common symptoms:

  • Talking in sleep

  • Screaming during sleep

  • Unusual behavior, such as urinating in closets or doorways; this is more common in children

  • Little to no memory of the event

  • Difficulty arousing the person from the episode, or even violent reactions from the person when aroused

Diagnosis

If you or a loved one is a sleepwalker, it is generally pretty easy to diagnose. Because sleep deprivation is often the source of sleepwalking, your doctor may perform tests or a physical examination to determine reasons that you might be sleep deprived. Your doctor may ask you about stress, medications you are taking, or other things that might contribute to your sleepwalking.

Treatment

Sometimes, steps as simple as improving sleep hygiene can help. This can include going to bed at a consistent time every night, creating a relaxing routine before bedtime, and getting your room at a comfortable temperature that’s neither too cold nor too hot.

In some cases, hypnosis therapy has helped people stop sleepwalking. Other times, medicines, such as sedative-hypnotics or antidepressants, do the trick. You’ll want to talk with your doctor about the right strategy for you.

Prevention

The best way to prevent sleepwalking is to get a better night’s sleep. In some cases, stress or certain medications can contribute to sleepwalking. You can try steps to manage your stress, like reading a book or taking a warm bath before bedtime. Regular exercise can also help you sleep better, but it’s best done at least five or six hours before bedtime.

Managing sleepwalking

Sleepwalking can be dangerous to the sleepwalker. One important step that you can take to make the situation safer for the sleepwalker is to remove any sharp or dangerous objects from the room, such as glass vases or tables with sharp corners. If traveling, a person who is a sleepwalker should always try to stay on the first floor, or in a room without a balcony and a solid locked window. This will help the sleepwalker prevent injury.

For children who sleepwalk, it’s a good idea to avoid using bunk beds. Locking doors and windows is also a strategy to promote safety. It also might be wise to install gates at the top of staircases to prevent dangerous falls.

Home remedies

Alcohol use can sometimes trigger sleepwalking episodes. Avoiding alcohol might help to prevent sleepwalking in some people. Instead, create a relaxing bedtime routine that doesn’t include alcohol.

Online Medical Reviewer: Finke, Amy, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 1/4/2014
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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