Sleepwalking (also known as somnambulism, noctambulism and night wandering) is a sleep disorder which prompts the sufferer sit up or to walk around and to perform various complex actions while asleep.
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Is sleepwalking dangerous? What sort of potential dangers does it entail and how can you “cure” it? Let us try to address these questions and more.
Why do people walk in their sleep?
Sleepwalking – a disorder mostly affecting children between the ages of 4 and 8 – is an issue that can be triggered by a number of factors.
Some of these factors are hereditary/genetic. Indeed, a person whose sibling or parent is affected by sleepwalking, is 10 times more likely to develop the problem than a person whose family is sleepwalking-free.
Sleep deprivation is another problem that may trigger a whole menagerie of sleep disorders, among them sleepwalking too.
An irregular sleep schedule is also a potential trigger for sleepwalking, as is stress, fever and various psychiatric disorders.
Other sleep disorders, such as restless leg syndrome, are involved in sleepwalking as well. Stress and various drugs (such as sedatives) can be involved with sleepwalking on some level too.
A number of medical conditions can trigger the problem as well, and the list of such issues is indeed truly formidable.
Heart rhythm problems and fever are obvious candidates, but we have less likely actors involved too, such as heartburn and obstructive sleep apnea.
Seizures and nighttime asthma round out the sinister picture, with panic problems, PTSD and multiple personality disorder slapped onto the side.
It is indeed safe to conclude that anything and everything that negatively impacts sleep quality can be involved with sleepwalking, one way or another.
How do you get rid of sleepwalking?
Prevention is always better than the treatment of any condition after onset, so here’s what you can do to avoid situations that can lead up to sleepwalking:
- Avoiding and limiting stress is a great starting point. Always try to lead as stress-free a life as possible, within the limits of reason of course. In this day and age, completely eliminating stress is impossible, so learning to manage it is a much more realistic approach.
- Set a proper sleep schedule and try to stick to it, as much as possible of course.
- While you may not always have control over stress and sleep quality, there is one thing you can always control 100%: visual and auditory stimulation before bedtime. Eliminate smart phones, tablet and even television from your pre-sleep ritual, and you’ll have dealt the odds of sleepwalking a very significant blow.
If you already are a sleepwalker, there are a number of measures you can take to eliminate the potential dangers associated with the disorder. Move your bedroom to the ground floor, lock your doors and windows, eliminate sharp and pointy objects from your sleeping environment, and place drapes over your windows.
Last, but certainly not least, if you’re dealing with a medical condition that is a potential sleepwalking trigger, have it treated and eliminated.
Obviously, if sleepwalking is frequent, one should seek medical help. Psychological/medical examination is in order, to exclude possible underlying causes such as partial complex seizures.
Is it bad to wake up a sleepwalker?
The answer to that is both yes and no.
Yes, because upon awakening, a sleepwalker can cause physical damage to him/herself or the person who wakes him/her up.
Vigorously rousing someone from a sleepwalking episode will cause physical discomfort to the sufferer, not to mention confusion and psychological distress. A person awakened in this manner may strike out at anyone close by, out of fear and momentary confusion, so no, in this regard, rousing a sleepwalker is really not a good idea.
What do you do though when you see the sleepwalker is headed for trouble? In such cases, simply guiding the person back to his/her bed while still asleep, is the best course of action.
The myth about sleepwalkers being prone to having a cardiac event, getting a shock or developing brain damage upon awakening, is just that: a myth. The only danger and potential for injury comes from the confused actions of the sleepwalker and not from the shock of awakening.
What stage is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking is known to mostly occur during stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle. These stages are the deep sleep, or Delta sleep stages, where little to no dreaming occurs, and where the replenishment of muscle nutrients and hormones happens.
During this stage of sleep, the muscles are relaxed, though the body maintains its ability to control and activate them if needed.
During a night, about 4-6 full cycles of sleep are rotated through. Sleepwalking is most likely to occur in one of the early cycles.
It is also known to occur (less frequently) during REM sleep, in which case it strikes toward the end of sleep, in the morning.
In children, sleepwalking seems to be surprisingly common between the ages of 6 and 12.
In adults, it is much rarer. It is estimated that only one in 250 adults suffers from this sleeping disorder.
Is sleepwalking dangerous?
As already stated above, in its mild/most usual form, sleepwalking does not carry any physiological hazards for the sufferer, not even when the sleepwalker is abruptly awakened.
The fact though that due to the condition, one ends up walking around, performing complex actions and even driving vehicles in some cases, while in an unconscious state, does imply certain dangers.
Sleepwalking episodes can last from a few seconds to 30-40 minutes, so they should not be underestimated when it comes to the type of physical risk to which they expose their victims.
As stated above, measures aimed at the management of the condition should be focused on physically limiting access for the sufferer to the bedroom, and to making the bedroom itself as safe as possible from the perspective of physical contact.
Can sleepwalkers see you?
Sleepwalkers may have their eyes open and they may actually see some of their surroundings, but they do not “see” in the conventional sense of the word.
Despite seeing enough to be able to perform complex actions, a sleepwalker does not see the surrounding world the way he usually does. For instance, he may think that he is in a different room, or in an entirely different location altogether.
This is why it is important to make sure he does not get into any trouble in the “real world” while sleepwalking, which explains why it is a good idea to lock the windows and doors of the bedroom, to make sure he cannot leave the premises.
A sleepwalker will usually go back to bed on his own, and he will not remember anything about the incident in the morning.
Not all sleepwalking episodes involve actual walking. Sometimes the sleepwalker will simply sit up in bed, utter a few senseless words and go right back to proper sleep.
Can you drive a car while sleepwalking?
Unfortunately (and quite surprisingly indeed), the answer to that is yes.
It is possible for a sleepwalker to drive a vehicle (at which point, he would obviously become a sleep-driver, wouldn’t he?), and such cases have been recorded.
We’re not even talking about moving a vehicle out of the garage, or minor distances. There were cases when sleep-drivers drove significant distances from one location to another, never woke up and never remembered anything regarding the feat once they did awaken.
There are no records about the accidents and fatalities caused by sleep-drivers, but the dangers associated with this sort of behavior are obvious. The driver is highly likely to injure himself and/or others.
If it really does reach this stage, sleepwalking has to be treated and the problem needs to be referred to a specialist.
Once again though: potential sleep driving episodes can be averted by taking a few basic precautions, such as the locking of the door of one’s bedroom.
Can a sleepwalker kill you?
Sleepwalkers can indeed perform actions of an amazing level of complexity while they are essentially asleep and thus unconscious, and since they can indeed drive a car – as said above – they can obviously commit murder too. While sleepwalking homicide is technically possible, it enters a litigious realm, where the boundaries of science are not easy to define at all.
Those guilty of murder obviously have a vested interest in “playing the sleepwalking card,” so some of the cases recorded may indeed not be scientifically relevant.
Other times, sleepwalking does indeed appear very plausible.
In one such case, a farmer – well known for his sleepwalking and sleep working – murdered his daughter, thinking he was fighting off a robber.
With loaded firearms in the house, sleepwalking takes on an entirely new threat-dimension, and indeed, at least in one case, a sleepwalker ended up shooting his own father.
Is sleepwalking a mental illness?
While I would personally not consider that sleepwalking can be called a mental illness – given that all it really takes to induce in some children is to rouse them at night – I have to mention that a group of French researchers have conducted a study, at the end of which they concluded that sleepwalkers’ health-related quality of life was indeed seriously affected by the condition, compared to a control group. I also have to note though that the said study was conducted on adult sleepwalking.
In children, sleepwalking issues can be chalked up to the continuous development of the brain, while in adults – whose brains are already fully developed – the disorder may indeed be indicative of certain underlying mental problems. Sleepwalking only affects around 4% of the adult population, which is indeed well within the percentage-prevalence of certain mental illnesses.
In most cases though, sleepwalking should probably be considered a symptom of an underlying mental condition, rather than its cause.