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Sleepwalking or Somnambulism – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Healthy Sleep | Sleep

One of the more interesting sleep disorders throughout history is sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism or noctambulism. Prior to the 19th century, this fascinating condition was shrouded in mystery, with all sorts of beliefs and theories around it.

Thanks to science, however, we’ve determined that people who walk in their sleep are neither zombies, nor poor beings possessed by a demon or a dead relative with unfinished business—they’re simply sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking or somnambulism is a sleep disorder characterized by walking, talking, or doing typical daily activities while in deep sleep. It’s very common among children and there are no known direct causes yet. Here is what we know.

Can’t sleep and don’t know why? Check out our Complete Guide to Sleep Disorders with symptoms, causes, and treatments on over twenty types of sleep disorders.

Quick Facts – Sleepwalking or Somnambulism

Frequency: Up to 17% among children*, 1.5% in adults**

Risk Factors: Sleep deprivation, young age, genetics or a familial history of sleepwalking or night terrors, other sleep-related disorders (e.g. obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome), alcohol use or abuse

Nature: Mental

Treatment: Psychological and behavioral interventions, prescription medication, relaxation techniques

Symptoms – Sleepwalking or Somnambulism

The symptoms of somnambulism can vary greatly depending on severity. While the most common activity is to walk around the house, some sleepwalkers might also carry out complex tasks like getting dressed and opening cupboards and refrigerator doors. In rare, extreme cases, sleepwalking activities can be downright dangerous; some sleepwalkers have actually gotten into their car and started driving, for example.

Below is a list of the commonly observed behavior among those who sleepwalk.

  1.  Getting up and out of bed, walking around with eyes open but in a sleep state
  2. Waking up confused and disoriented, not knowing how they got out of bed
  3. Inappropriate behavior (e.g. urinating in odd places like doorways and cabinets)
  4. Talking while asleep
  5. Usually have little to no recollection of what they did while sleepwalking
  6. Sometimes responding if you talk to them while they are sleepwalking, but give nonsensical or mumbling responses

Causes – Sleepwalking or Somnambulism

Sleepwalking is most common among children, with the NHS saying that 1 in 5 kids will have at least one experience of sleepwalking. Although in some cases it may persist into adulthood, more often than not, children outgrow it when they reach puberty.

The exact cause of sleepwalking is still unknown, although studies have found several factors that seem significantly linked to an increased probability of its incidence. Here is a list of some of them.

  1.  Anxiety and physical or emotional stress
  2. Other sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea, and night terrors
  3. Underlying neurological or psychiatric conditions in adults, such as Tourette’s syndrome 
  4. Sleep deprivation
  5. Migraine headaches
  6. Fever and sleeping in unfamiliar places and surroundings (in children)
  7. Alcohol or substance abuse

Treatment – Sleepwalking or Somnambulism

Sleepwalking in children is deemed fairly normal and doesn’t usually require any behavioral or medical treatment, unless the behavior leads to injury or significant sleep disturbance. In cases of adult onset sleepwalking, on the other hand, several treatment methods and options have been found to be successful in managing—if not completely eliminating—the symptoms of sleepwalking. The following are some of them.

  1.  Psychological and behavioral intervention – This category includes anticipatory or scheduled awakening, hypnosis, behavior management, and sleep hygiene improvement.
  2. Relaxation and stress reduction techniques 
  3. Prescription medication – This can include antipsychotics, sedatives, antiepileptic medicine, and supplements such as melatonin to aid with sleep.

How You Will Overcome Sleepwalking or Somnambulism

If your child sleepwalks, don’t worry—kids normally outgrow this as they get older. The most important thing is to make sure they’re physically safe during sleepwalking episodes (remove sharp objects from the bedroom, lock the doors and windows, avoid bunk beds, put safety gates at the top of staircases).

While there is no specific treatment for sleepwalking yet, research conducted by the National Sleep Foundation cites hypnosis as a successful treatment option for adult onset sleepwalking symptoms. And in a lot of cases, symptoms can be eliminated by improving sleep hygiene—as in, have a routine sleep schedule, avoid stress triggers in the bedroom, invest in comfortable pillows, etc.

Watching your child or someone you love sleepwalk can be worrying, but keep in mind that the symptoms are manageable and treatment is available. Consult a sleep specialist and explore which methods can best help you and your loved one can sleep safe and sound: preferably in bed, with absolutely no sleepwalking, but with maybe just the right amount of tossing and turning for good measure.

Did you know?

This article is part of our Complete Guide to Sleep Disorders – A resource that will help you get your quality sleep back. Click here to learn more about sleep disorders, their causes, symptoms and how to overcome them. 

Featured in New York Magazine, The Guardian, and The Washington Post
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