Sleepwalking: An overview

03 Oct Sleepwalking: An overview

Sleepwalking is a relatively rare sleep disorder that has been reported in ancient medicine from as far back as 2,500 years ago. In modern medicine, it is not seen as anything dangerous: a random, occasional thing that can happen to anyone with no ill effect.

Sleepwalking (somnoambulism or noctambulism) is a non-REM parasomnia, meaning it occurs during one of the stages of sleep that is not during dreaming or REM sleep (typically occurring in stage 3 or slow wave sleep).

Typical symptoms include:

  • Open eyes but with a staring or blank expression.
  • Slow nonsensical or no response to questions.
  • Typical movements: sitting up, walking, running,
  • Unusual movements: urinating, climbing, getting dressed, more complex motor tasks
  • No memory of having sleepwalked.

There is no known physical or psychiatric cause and many think it is acting out of dreams or indulging in secret desires such as eating.  However as sleepwalking does not occur during dream sleep or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  Instead it occurs during slow wave sleep (stage 3) which is the part of the sleep cycle where brain waves are slowest and the conscious brain is quiet and inactive.  During this time the nervous system can sometimes be responsible for activation of the motor cortex producing movements, which are independent of active thinking (I-Fuction).

Many things can contribute to the likelihood of sleepwalking however such as:

  • Being sleep deprived
  • Having another sleep disorder
  • Illness such as fever, or during allergic reactions
  • Certain medications such as psychoactive drugs, and alcohol
  • Genetic pre-disposition
  • Children are most likely to sleepwalk between ages 4-8.

Sleepwalking itself is not dangerous and has not been linked with any underlying psychological issues.  In some instances though people may put themselves into harm’s way if leaving the house, driving or climbing or there may also be a more serious sleep disorder present.

Treatment is often performed to try and remove stresses and treating lack of sleep or adjusting medications depending on the sleepwalker’s circumstances.   Hypnotism has been shown to be effective as well.  Understanding other potential underlying psychological or medical causes can be important to effective treatment so if frequent or violent sleepwalking has become problematic ensure you consult a sleep specialist.

Some self-administered techniques to assist may include:

  • Ensuring enough time for 6-8hrs sleep each night
  • Cease TV, computer and mobile phone usage before bedtime to remove excessive stimulus.
  • Try relaxation or calming exercises
  • Ensure the environment is safe by locking windows or doors, and removing potentially harmful objects from the area.