What Is Sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking is a disorder that causes you to get up and walk while you’re asleep. Your doctor might call it somnambulism.
It usually happens when you’re going from a deep stage of sleep to a lighter stage or coming awake. You can't respond while you’re sleepwalking and usually don't remember it. In some cases, you may talk and not make sense.
Sleepwalking mostly happens to children, usually between the ages of 4 and 8. But adults can do it, too.
When there’s a sleepwalker in the house, it’s important to create a safe environment. Lock doors and windows, move sharp objects, and install gates at the top of stairs. Consult a sleep specialist if you or a loved one is having frequent episodes of sleepwalking, injuring themselves, or showing violent behavior.
A sleepwalker might:
- Walk quietly around their room
- Run or try to “escape”
- Have open eyes and a glassy stare
- Be slow to respond to questions, or not respond at all
- Have no memory of sleepwalking
- Be embarrassed if they wake up during an episode
Sleepwalking Causes and Risk Factors
Several things can lead to sleepwalking.
It can run in your family. Identical twins are more likely to sleepwalk. If you have a parent, brother, or sister who sleepwalks, you're 10 times more likely to do it than someone from a family with no sleepwalkers.
Some studies suggest that children who sleepwalk may have been more restless sleepers when they were ages 4 to 5, and more restless with more frequent awakenings during the first year of life.
You might also sleepwalk if you're:
- On a chaotic sleep schedule
- Taking drugs such as sedative-hypnotics (which help you relax or sleep), neuroleptics (used to treat psychosis), stimulants (which boost activity), and antihistamines (used to treat allergy symptoms)
Medical conditions linked to sleepwalking include:
- Heart rhythm problems
- Nighttime asthma
- Nighttime seizures
- Obstructive sleep apnea (when you briefly stop breathing during sleep)
- Restless legs syndrome
- Psychiatric disorders like posttraumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, or dissociative states, such as multiple personality disorder
Sleepwalking is usually simple to diagnose. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. They might need to do some tests to find out whether a medical condition is making you sleepwalk. These tests might include:
- Physical exam
- Sleep study (polysomnography). You’ll spend the night in a sleep lab, where workers will record things like your heart rate, brain waves, and movements while you sleep.
- EEG. This is rare. If your doctor suspects that a serious condition is making you sleepwalk, you might need a test that measures your brain activity.
Medical treatment for sleepwalking usually isn’t necessary. It’s usually a sign of lack of sleep, intense emotional problems, stress, or fever. As these conditions resolve, sleepwalking stops.
Changing a few lifestyle habits might help you stop sleepwalking. Stick to a sleep schedule and have a relaxing bedtime routine. If you drink or use drugs, stop. If you take medication, ask your doctor whether it might play a role.
Your treatment also may include hypnosis or medications like antidepressants or sedatives.
In most children, sleepwalking disappears at puberty. but it can last into adulthood or may even begin in adulthood.