Sleepwalking (or Somnambulism)

Sleepwalking, also known by its technical term as somnambulism, describes a sleep disorder condition that happens when individuals walk around and sometimes perform other activities such as using the restroom, talking or eating while still sleeping. Whole they may act and appear to be conscious, they are not. Episodes of sleepwalking usually last no longer than 10 to 15 minutes, but they can also last much longer. During an episode, the sleepwalkers are usually in a deep stage of sleep that can be categorized as non-REM, or before a cycle of rapid eye movement sets in and sleepers usually start to dream most vividly. Sleepwalkers generally seem bewildered and disoriented when they wake up.

While sleepwalking in children may not be as big of a health concern as sleepwalking during other stages of life (because usually children grow out of it soon enough), sleepwalking in adults and the elderly may be a sign of an underlying medical or mental condition or may be a side-effect if certain medications and should be checked out by a physician.

Sleepwalking Causes (in Adults and the Elderly)

In general, sleep experts believe that tiredness from not getting enough sleep make a person more likely to sleepwalk. Anxiety may also play a role, as it does when an anxious person has fitful dreams, or nightmares, during stressful times in his or her life. However an official cause of sleepwalking has not been found, although in adults and the elderly it may be a symptom of more complicated health issues.

Among the possible factors that make sleepwalking likely include a adult person’s alcohol intake, current medications and his or her past and present medical conditions (especially if there are neurological or mental in nature). With elderly patients, sleepwalking has also been suggested to be a symptom of organic brain syndrome (which describes diseased brain function very similar but distinct from dementia) or some REM behavioral disorders. There also may be a genetic component that affects sleepwalking among family members.

How to Stop Sleepwalking

There is a common misconception that sleepwalkers should be allowed to continue the extent of their episodes without disturbance—but waking up a sleepwalker will not cause health threats of any kind. Extra precautions may need to be made is the sleepwalkers being treated tend to perform activities which put themselves in danger, such as driving or climbing ladders. It happens more often than not that a sleepwalker will hurt himself or herself slightly because of a stumble, trip or fall. In general, however, the effects are not very serious and the sleepwalker will simply wake up, look confused and probably go back to sleep. No professional treatment is really necessary. Though, sometimes counseling and some medications can help patients whose sleepwalking is being caused by deep anxiety or stress.  Contact a sleep doctor if you have questions about sleepwalking.