Last Updated February 20th, 2019
Overview of sleepwalking
Sleep disorders are very common after a certain age. But one would be mistaken to associate sleep disorders strictly with old age. In the recent years, sleep disorders have become a common occurrence in children and young adults. These complications are normally triggered by environmental or physiological stress factors. According to epidemiological study reports by National Sleep Foundation, sleep disorders affect nearly 150 million people all over the world.
Sleepwalking is one such disorder wherein a person walks and moves around while in sleep. It is mainly found in children, although the phenomenon occurs in adults as well. Surveys conducted by the Sleep Health Foundation show that 2 or 3 children in 100 sleepwalk quite often and nearly 5 in 100 children sleepwalk occasionally. A survey in adults says that 3 or 4 in 100 have sleepwalked at least once in their lives, but only 4 in 1000 have prolonged sleepwalking.
What is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking, medically termed as somnambulism is a combined state of sleep and wakefulness, in which a person walks and moves around in his sleep. It is a serious form of sleep disorder that falls under the category of parasomnia. This stage is medically termed as “low wave sleep stage” where the person is in a very low state of consciousness and performs activities that are done in a state of full awareness. These activities may include sitting up on the bed suddenly, grabbing at the nearby objects, walking to the bathroom or even walking out of the house. Some of the patients may even perform activities as dangerous as cooking or driving. In most cases, these patients show certain repeated behavioral patterns while in this state.
Typically the patients do not remember what they did during this period, although they may have a slight recollection of certain events in some cases. The disease generally develops in childhood and may or may not persist in the teenage and adulthood.
What factors may lead to sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking is precipitated by a number of environmental, pathological, physical and lifestyle factors. The commonly studied factors are listed below-
- Age: People above the age of 60 are found to suffer most from sleep disorder conditions. This is caused due to changes (due to age) in few phases of the sleep cycle such as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (Non-rapid Eye Movement) stages.
- Environment: Noise, light, temperature, pressure, radiation, and vibration from electronic devices are few stress factors that interfere with the normal sleep cycle. Care must be taken so that the pillows do not become very hard or stiffened, as they might contribute to interrupted sleep due to back and neck pain.
- Sleeping positions: Improper twisting and bending during sleep or incorrect sleeping positions can impede healthy sleep.
- Medical conditions: Few existing illnesses such as fever, headache, body pains, digestive disorders or respiratory ailments can disrupt sleep.
- Medications: Few stimulants such as Amphetamine or inhibitors such as Paroxetine can cause loss of sleep at night.
- Physical stress: Hectic schedules, occupational stress and long hours of travel on a regular basis can induce sleep disorders.
- Emotional stress: Mental stress due to various factors can cause anxiety, depression, nervousness and trauma which in turn can disturb sleep.
- Hormones: Hormonal fluctuations during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause can cause disturbed sleep especially in women.
- Genes: Researchers have proved that people having an ancestral history of sleep disorders are more likely to develop similar symptoms in their lifetime.
- Substance abuse: Excess consumption of tobacco, alcohol, caffeine or narcotics can cause sleeplessness.
In addition to these, the following factors might also be responsible:
- Unnecessary daytime nap can cause irregular sleep at night
- Diabetic patients who have to urinate frequently at night are prone to sleep disorders
- Very heavy meals and physical exercise just before bedtime can cause troubled sleep
- Maladjustment of the body clock due to frequent change of time zones can cause sleep disturbance.
What are the different types of sleepwalking?
Somnambulism is usually categorized into the following types-
- Sleepwalking with sleep-related eating: Sleep eating is also one kind of eating disorder, where the patients consume food and medicines while in sleep.
- Sleepwalking with sleep-related sexual behavior: This is a less common type and is found mainly in the adults.
To understand the exact causes of sleep disorder, an accurate and detailed diagnosis is necessary. Normally doctors recommend a special sleep test called Polysomnography. It is carried out in a special sleep center. It helps to study the brain waves, heart rate, the oxygen level in blood, respiratory rate and movements of hand and legs during one complete sleep cycle. The overall sleep quality is measured using sensors attached to the body which are removed after completion of the cycle.
Your child is sleepwalking. What are the treatment and prevention measures?
Once your child has been diagnosed with the disease, as a parent it is your responsibility to guide him or her out of it. There a few simple precautionary measures you need to adopt-
- Safety: Sleepwalkers often have the tendency to step out of the house or hurt themselves with objects lying on the floor. So before sleeping shut all the doors, windows and any other exit path. Make sure no objects are lying on the floor to prevent injuries. In serious cases, tie a bell to your child’s bedroom door so that you are notified whenever he/she walks out.
- Guidance: Properly guide your child back to the bed, talk to him/her in a calm and soothing manner and help him/ her fall asleep under comfortable conditions.
- Don’t wake him/her up: Trying to wake up a sleepwalking patient often makes things worse. They become more agitated and may subject themselves to far worse conditions. Therefore instead of trying to wake them up forcefully try to help them fall asleep completely.
- Amount of sleep: Sleepwalking very often arises due to sleep deprivation. Make sure that your child gets enough sleep to prevent recurrent incidents of sleepwalking.
- Sleep schedule: Somnambulism is effectively checked if a regular sleeping schedule is maintained. Maintain a diary if required.
Antipsychotic and anticholinergic drugs can be used to treat the problem of sleepwalking, but only on being advised by a doctor. Cognitive behavioral therapies have also been proved to be an effective technique.
Studies by Center for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that nearly 70 million Americans suffer from problems of sleep and wakefulness. Doctors are strictly prohibiting the intake of sedatives or tranquilizers to recover from these problems since these drugs have harmful side effects. Health organizations all over the world are recommending therapeutic techniques and healthy habits to reduce possibilities of sleep disorders.
- The medical term for this condition is “somnambulism”.
- While most people who sleepwalk might not remember doing so, some of them have a faint recollection of it.
- Active sleepwalkers remain sleepy throughout the day.
- At least 1%-15% of the entire adult American population sleep-walks.
- Children are more prone to sleepwalk since they go through lesser REM state sleep than adults. The most common age of sleep-walking children is 3-7 years.
- During sleep, complex-behavior forming part of the brain is active yet memory-storage and decision-making regions remain inactive.
- This tendency is largely genetic (80% of cases have a family history). Also, if one twin sleepwalks, it is 5 times more likely for the other twin to sleep-walk too.
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Dos and Don'ts
- Try not to wake-up people suddenly when they are sleep-walking. It is best to gently guide them to bed.
- If an individual is suffering from a neurological condition such as Parkinson’s disease, he/she may not achieve REM state completely and start acting out the dreams, which may lead to self-harm.
- One should have a regulated bedtime routine. Avoid stimulating activities before going to sleep.
- Eat a heavy meal before sleep. Contrary to popular myth, eating a large meal before bedtime can keep you up because of an increased metabolic rate of the body.
- Consume caffeine and alcohol before bedtime. Also, refrain from taking day-time naps.
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