What Causes Sleepwalking?

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Sleep disorders that involve abnormal or disruptive movements or behaviors fall under the category of parasomnias. One of the most commonly known of these disorders is sleepwalking, which is a condition formally known as somnambulism. When a person sleepwalks, they don’t stay resting soundly in bed: Instead, they rise and unknowingly walk, sometimes performing complex activities such as unlocking a door or even driving a car. While they may appear to be awake, they are in a complete state of sleep while performing these actions. Studies have shown that an estimated 1 to 15 percent of people suffer from some degree of sleepwalking. While both adults and children of either gender may sleepwalk, it is more common in children.

In understanding why some people don’t stay in the comfort of their bed while sleeping, it’s important to first look at what causes sleepwalking and when it occurs. People who sleepwalk are in stage N3 of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. NREM sleep differs from rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, which is the stage where people dream. Stage N3 is the deepest stage of NREM. Sleepwalking doesn’t have anything to do with the comfort of one’s mattress. In fact, it isn’t entirely known why it occurs; however, some researchers believe that it is caused when the brain attempts to jump from NREM to wakefulness.

Other conditions are also commonly thought to trigger sleepwalking in some individuals. These include using alcohol and other sedatives or taking hypnotics or certain medications used for the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Mental disorders thought to increase the risk of sleepwalking include depression, which is said to increase one’s risk by 3.5 percent, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) which can make one as much as four times more susceptible to somnambulism. Additional causes may include problems such as abnormal sleep breathing patterns, gastroesophageal reflux disease, restless leg syndrome, stress, and fever or fever-related illnesses. Because sleepwalking frequently occurs in people who have at least one parent with a history of sleepwalking, it is believed that genetics may also play a role in whether some individuals experience the disorder. Sleep deprivation and sleep apnea also potentially contribute to an increased risk.

People who sleepwalk may experience two or more episodes a month. During these episodes, they may be at risk of minor to severe injury while in the process of moving about. This is particularly true if they leave the home, as they may get lost or make their way onto a street where there are cars and other hazards. Inside the home, stairs can prove hazardous, as can engaging in activities that are dangerous, such as handling sharp objects.

When people first start sleepwalking, it is important that they see their doctor. A doctor can determine if there are any illnesses that may be causing it. There are ways to treat people who sleepwalk, but treatment is often unnecessary unless the behavior is ongoing or disruptive or one’s unconscious behavior indicates a heightened risk of injury. Often, children who sleepwalk will stop doing so by the time they become teenagers.

A doctor can help determine if treatment is necessary and what will be the most effective approach. Addressing any underlying causes is the first step. This may include starting or switching medications. Other steps may include self-hypnosis or waking up a person who regularly sleepwalks 15 minutes before an episode would normally start. This is called anticipatory waking, and the individual should be kept awake for approximately 15 minutes before being allowed to go back to sleep. Reducing stress and establishing a sleep routine that allows enough sleep time may also prove helpful.

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Logan Block

Logan is the content director of Sleepopolis, which means he not only reviews new mattresses every week, but also curates all the comparisons, best of pages, and video guides on the site. He takes a straightforward, honest approach to his reviews and endeavors to give viewers an objective look at each new product he tries out. Logan has perfected his method by personally testing over 200 different mattresses, so he’s not only able to discern the overall vibe of a specific bed, but to contextualize its feel within the bed-in-a-box market as a whole.