Sleepwalking or somnambulism is a common parasomnia.
Parasomnias are a group of sleep arousal disorders characterized by abnormal movements, perceptions, dreams, emotions and behaviors that happen in a state of deep sleep.
We can think of parasomnias as disassociated states of sleep. This means that there are periods of wakefulness between the NREM and REM stages of sleep. These cycles involve non-rapid eye movement and rapid eye movement.
Sleepwalking is defined as a behavior disorder that occurs during deep sleep resulting in waking or undertaking unconscious complex behaviors while asleep. It happens an hour or two after sleeping and lasts for about thirty minutes at the most.
The brain of the person affected exits from short wave sleep – another name for NREM sleep – and due to a physiological activation they are subsequently trapped between waking and sleeping.
In the mildest form, the person affected might simply sit up and seem to be awake. Others actually get up out of bed and walk around. Sometimes they perform fairly complex tasks such as moving things around, getting dressed or heading to the bathroom.
Sleepwalking is much more common in children than in adults. Up to one-fifth of kids experience problems with sleepwalking at some stage. It occurs mainly between the ages of 4-12 with the most regular outbreaks happening between the ages of 11-12. For the most part, sleepwalking fades away by the end of adolescence. Usually in children, sleepwalking is in some way linked to school and behavioral issues.
Parents have nothing to be scared of since sleepwalking in kids is normally short-term and easily treated. Also, as mentioned, it tends to disappear naturally after a while.
Saying this, parents should nevertheless be strictly vigilant if their children have it. Although not considered to be a serious disorder in the young, sleepwalking can cause damage and injuries not only to others but to the child who has it as well. Parents should always make sure the child doesn’t leave their house during sleepwalking. And, if possible, lock the bedroom door outside and put a barrier at the stairways.
In an episode of such a parasomniac disorder, the brain is partially awake and is dictating the movements and actions of the body. The affected person’s eyes are open but they don’t seem to see anything or anyone. Their eyes are focused forward and they give a blank stare. They don’t recall any of the events that occurred when they awaken.
People who sleepwalk it sometimes sleep talk too but they talk in a meaningless fashion. The senses are completely asleep. They hear nothing so don’t expect them to reply or even to wake up at once. It will take longer to rouse sleepwalkers. Even though sleepwalkers are technically asleep, when in this state they can be guided. They will follow anyone who will take their hand and lead them. They can even return back to their beds and resume sleep as if nothing had happened.
The sleepwalker is just totally unaware of whatever actions are happening.
Sleepwalking affects about four percent of adults.
Unlike the incidents with children, sleepwalking in adults can have serious complications so it’s important to look at what is provoking the problem. A child might go for a walk around the house whereas an adult risks going out to the car or walking out into the street.
The frequency and severity of every episode in adults are mainly related to sleep deprivation, stressful incidents, extremely elevated emotions, mood disturbances, intense exercises, drinking and drug medications – antihistamines are particularly prone to inducing sleepwalking. Fatigue and noisy environment can also trigger it. Sleep apnea and past head injuries can also be responsible but these are just factors that contribute to the onset of sleepwalking.
The real causes are still unknown up to this time. This is one of the most frustrating parts of trying to understand the issue.
Sleepwalking can sometimes run in the family but it is not related to any underlying psychological or psychiatric illnesses. It is just a sleeping disorder triggered by some physiological problems.
One common myth associated with sleepwalking is that you should not wake the person during this state. It is not dangerous to wake them at all. Expect them to be disoriented or confused and do so very gently but do not worry about waking them. Another misconception is that a person is unable to sustain injuries while sleepwalking. This is simply not true.
One of the strands that can be considered as the very worst form of sleepwalking is a parasomnia that includes sexual arousals. This is known as sexsomnia. Experts define sexsomnia (or sleep sex) as sexual engagements while asleep. The vast majority who have this disorder are men.
Sexsomnia ranges from unconsciously touching the body or private parts while sleeping to just a casual sexual involvement without any knowledge of doing it. In the worst case it can extend to inflicting sexual attacks or damage on another person. Some men who are sued for rape use this disorder to justify their bad deeds and have actually been acquitted of the crime.
With children, little can be done except to take the precautions outlined above. Make the place safe by locking doors and windows, using heavy drapes to cover glass windows and removing any trip hazards.
Adults can do something to address the underlying cause. If you are experiencing occurrences of sleepwalking then look closely at any medication you are taking. Medication can also be used to effectively prevent sleepwalking. Short-term small doses of ProSom (a benzodiazepine), Klonopin or Desyrel can all help.
For a more natural approach, relaxation techniques can be beneficial for long-term problems with sleepwalking.
In general, the best thing you can do is to ensure that you get sufficient sleep, use meditation or other methods of relaxing before bed, sidestep any types of stimuli before heading to bed and, as a preventative measure, take care that the sleeping environment is free of sharp or harmful objects.
Sleepwalking has been reported for centuries and is nothing to worry about!