Up until today, sleepwalking (medical term = somnambulism) belongs to one of the most secretive phenomena of medicine. Sleepwalking is a sleep disturbance under which mainly children suffer (from 10 to 30 %). It is assumed that 1 or 2 % of adults are sleepwalking more or less frequently. Most sleepwalkings occur in the age from 4 to 6 and mostly it disappears during puberty.
The causes of this sleep disturbance are not fully researched yet. Sleepwalking mainly occurs during deep sleep, namely during the first half of the night. Scientists assume that certain factors like stress or anxieties, consumption of alcohol or certain medicines might favor sleepwalking. Organic stimuli like a filled bladder, hunger or outer influences like noise seem to increase the tendency for sleepwalking. Furthermore, for sleep scientists a genetic background is a possible cause. About 80 % of all sleepwalkers at least have one relative who is sleepwalking, too.
What is happening during sleepwalking
People concerned get out of bed during deep sleep and act as if being awake. Normally, the sleep of children is deeper –- this might be the reason why they sleepwalk more often. Typical behaviors are things like wandering through the apartment or doing things like washing the dishes, opening and closing doors, climbing stairs etc. People concerned are able to do all the things that they are able to do during everyday life. Often, sleepwalking only lasts a couple of minutes, rarely half an hour. During sleepwalking, the eyes are open, sometimes the sleepwalkers shortly wake up, talk or look around. In the morning, they don’t remember anything.
Is sleepwalking dangerous?
The risk of getting injured during the wanderings is pretty high, since the perception is disturbed. Pieces of furniture, sharp edges etc. present a risk. Also, falling down the stairs or out of a window, walking into walls might be possible.
What can be done?
It is important to not abruptly wake up sleepwalkers while wandering around. Due to the suddenly awakening and not knowing their own whereabouts the sleepwalker becomes scared and often reacts wrongly. Cautiously, try to motivate the sleepwalking person to find the way to the bed again. Also, it is advisable to cover edges, block windows, lock doors (and remove the key!), waive bunk beds. Furthermore, it is advisable to care for an appropriate sleep hygiene like regular sleeping times, no late meals, a suitable sleep environment and sufficient sleep duration.
In case that the disturbance the first time verifiably occurs during adulthood, the behavior is very noticeable and no parent is/was concerned themselves it is advisable to seek medical advice. With a psychiatric and neurological examination organic disturbances that might resemble sleepwalking can be excluded. These disturbances might be certain forms of epilepsy, drowsiness, sleep-apnoea, night-time startling (pavor nocturnus) as well as sleepwalking due to certain medications.
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