What is Sleep Walking: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

Have you heard about somnambulism? This is the medical term for walking during sleep, which is most commonly called sleep walking. Despite how sleep walking and talking are portrayed in the movies, this condition is only rarely caused by emotional or psychological problems. It is also not as rare as you might think. Antonio Zadra, Ph.D. of the Université de Montreal says that this disorder affects up to 4 percent of adults and is one of the “leading causes of sleep-related violence.” Learning more about this disorder can help you determine the cause of your sleep disturbances and take steps to improve your sleep.

What is Sleep Walking?

What is Sleep WalkingMany people mistakenly think that walking during sleep is the only behavior displayed by those with sleep walking disorders. People with this condition may also sit up, wander outside, open doors and display other behaviors during episodes of sleep talking and walking. There are several causes of walking in sleep, some of which are very simple to fix and others that are more difficult to combat. Major causes include irregular sleep schedules, use of prescription sleeping pills, fatigue, lack of sleep, stress, fever and illness. The medical term for sleep walking, somnambulism, comes from the Latin word for sleep.

While you sleep, the brain cycles through five different sleep stages. The cycle concludes with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is characterized by low muscle tone and rapid movements of the eyes. Although the body is asleep, the brain is very active during this stage of the cycle. Sleep walking, talking and eating usually occur during stages three and four of the sleep cycle. These are the deep stages of sleep, so it is difficult to wake up someone who is a sleep walker. If someone wakes you up while you are walking in your sleep, you may be disoriented and groggy for several minutes after waking.

Sleep Walking Symptoms

The symptoms of sleep walking vary from one person to the next. While walking sleep might be the only symptom displayed by one person, another person might start talking in her sleep, sit up in bed or perform repeated motions. Some sleep walkers have even been known to walk to their kitchens and eat an entire meal before they wake up. In severe cases, a sleep walker might even do something unusual, such as urinating in a closet instead of the bathroom. Dr. Zadra indicates that sleep walking is also one of the leading causes of sleep-related self-injury, as those who have this disorder may cut themselves with broken glass or sharp knives, bump into walls and furniture, or even fall down the stairs during sleep walking episodes.

Prevention of Sleep Walking

In some cases, you can control your sleep walking by making lifestyle changes. If you tend to sleep walk when you are fatigued, try getting more sleep. Most people need anywhere from seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Meditation and relaxation can reduce stress in your life, making it less likely that stress will trigger sleep walking episodes. In some cases, you cannot entirely prevent all episodes. However, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from harm during these episodes. If possible, sleep on the first floor of your home. No matter where you sleep, you should keep the area free of sharp objects and other hazards. Locking the doors and windows can prevent you from going outside or falling out of windows. If you have a serious sleep walking disorder, consider putting an alarm on your bedroom door. The alarm should be loud enough to wake you up before you venture into other areas of the house.

Sleep Walking Treatment

Physicians usually prescribe one of three prescription drugs to treat sleep walking. These drugs are clonazepam, trazodone and ProSom. Clonazepam is an anti-seizure drug that is also used to control panic attacks. This drug decreases the amount of abnormal electrical activity in the brain, which can help prevent sleep walking episodes. Possible side effects of clonazepam include problems with coordination, difficulty with memory, muscle pain, joint pain, loss of sex drive, frequent urination, drowsiness, unsteadiness, blurred vision, dizziness, difficulty thinking and increased saliva production. Trazodone increases the amount of serotonin in the brain and is usually prescribed as an antidepressant. This drug also treats insomnia, sleep walking and anxiety. Possible side effects of trazodone include nausea, headache, vomiting, stomach pain, constipation, weight changes, diarrhea, changes in appetite, confusion, muscle pain, sweating, dry mouth, ringing in ears, blurred vision, itchy eyes and nightmares.

Estazolam, sold under the brand name ProSom, is a benzodiazepine that treats insomnia and helps improve sleep. This drug can cause grogginess, dry mouth, weakness, constipation, drowsiness, aggression, dizziness, agitation, behavior changes, leg pain, muscle stiffness and loss of coordination. All three drugs can cause allergic reactions, so seek medical attention if you develop hives or experience difficulty breathing after taking one of them.

Disorders Associated with Sleep Walking

Several other disorders are associated with sleep walking. Night terrors are similar to nightmares, but their effects are much more dramatic. Like sleep walking, night terrors occur during deep sleep, usually during the transition from deep sleep to REM sleep. Most people make this transition without problems, but some become frightened or agitated. This is what causes the symptoms of night terrors. Night terrors, sleep walking and other sleep disturbances are closely related.

Sleep walking and eating are also closely linked. The American Sleep Association defines sleep eating as a disorder that causes people to eat or drink during sleep hours. These people may get up to eat several times in one night and often eat or drink excessively. Some have no memory of these episodes, but others may be able to recall eating or drinking during the night. Unlike sleep walkers, sleep eaters usually do not engage in other activities while they are asleep. This is a dangerous disorder, as sleep eaters may eat or drink non-food items such as cleaning fluids or cigarettes.

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes partial obstruction of the respiratory system during sleep. In some people, the anatomy of the nose and throat cause the obstruction. In those who are overweight or obese, excess throat tissue blocks the airway and makes it difficult to breathe normally. Sleep apnea is dangerous because it can cause someone to stop breathing during the night. It also increases the risk for heart disease and other serious conditions. Sleep apnea sleep walking occurs when someone with sleep apnea also displays symptoms of sleep walking and other sleep disorders. Researchers from Loyola University of Chicago Stritch School of Medicine report that obstructive sleep apnea can also cause people to hallucinate and act out their dreams.

Zolpidem sleep walking refers to the sleep walking episodes that occur when someone uses zolpidem, a prescription sleep aid. This drug is better known by its brand name, Ambien. W. Yang, a member of the neurology and rehabilitation department at the University of Chicago, reports that one patient with no history of sleep walking had two sleep walking episodes after taking Ambien during his recovery from hip surgery. Yang and his colleagues concluded that zolpidem can cause sleep walking in some people.

About Leigh Ann Morgan

I write about all sorts of things but ever since I completely got rid of my constant neck pain by finding the perfect pillow, I've started to learn as much as I can about sleep quality and sleep disorders.