Janice used to think her husband's sleepwalking was funny.
He fumbled through the dark, often muttered incoherently, and occasionally walked into walls. But she stopped laughing when he made his way to the garage one night and started the car.
Experts estimate that sleepwalking afflicts between 1% and 15% of the general population. It's more common in children -- especially those between the ages of 3 and 7 -- than in adults. According to the National Sleep Foundation's 2004 Sleep in America Poll, 1% of preschool children and 2% of school-age children walk in their sleep at least a few nights a week. The persistence of sleepwalking into adulthood is common. Overall, it is more likely to happen in sleep-deprived people.
Fortunately, sleepwalking is not usually associated with underlying psychiatric or psychological problems. It's simply a sleep disorder that usually happens when a person is in the deep-sleep phase, which should be the most restful, recuperative phase. Instead, sleepwalkers begin to do activities typical of wakefulness, such as talking, sitting up and looking around the room, getting out of bed and roaming the house, or even picking up car keys and going for a drive -- all while remaining in deep sleep.
Not only are sleepwalkers difficult to awaken, they usually recall little or nothing about their nighttime adventures. Worse, they may even attack anyone trying to wake them up.
Sleep deprivation is a common cause of this disorder. Other triggers include sedative agents, such as alcohol; illnesses accompanied by fever; and certain medications. There is no specific treatment for sleepwalking. Improving sleep hygiene is step one in alleviating the problem. Some adults find hypnosis helpful, while others have tried antidepressants (such as those in the SSRI class or tricyclic antidepressants) or other prescription medicines (such as a benzodiazepine, like Klonopin) with success.
Waking someone who is sleepwalking can be dangerous, but allowing a sleepwalker to roam about a room filled with sharp objects or to jump into the driver's seat of a vehicle is what's really hazardous.
The lesson: Stop sleepwalkers and get them back to bed. How? Gently turn them around and make sure they return to the bedroom safely. If they resist, stay with them and help them avoid perilous objects and situations. If you must awaken them, do so with loud noises rather than by shaking or touching them roughly.