Most of the available literature on sleep walking talks about sleep walking children, because most sleep walkers are children. But though they are more rare, there are adults who deal with this condition as well. Though only about 2% of the adult population sleep walks, it can cause more serious injuries to adults and can also co-exist with other serious conditions. There is also a higher chance of confusing the symptoms of sleepwalking with some other serious disorder.
Do you sleep walk or suspect that you are sleep walking? What does it mean and what can you do about it? This article gives you everything you need to be informed about sleep walking in adults.
What is sleep walking?
First, let’s talk about what sleep walking actually is. The medical community generally describes sleepwalking as walking or doing other activities while asleep. Most sleep walkers are actually children. Between 15 and 20 percent of children aged 3-12 years will experience a sleep walking episode at least once. Most of these children will discontinue sleep walking by adolescence. On the other hand, about 10% of sleep walkers begin sleep walking as teenagers or later, and they generally carry that behavior into adulthood.
As a side note, some people report “drunk sleep walking,” which is basically carrying out sleep walking behavior while drunk. Though some people make the distinction between “drunk” sleep walking and regular sleep walking, it is really the same thing. Alcohol and other drugs can trigger sleep walking episodes.
What are the symptoms?
What does sleep walking look like and how can you tell if you have it? Sleep walking can vary, and may be as simple as sitting up or moving around the room, and it can also include complex activities such as using the bathroom, getting dressed, doing other normal household activities, or even driving a car. The sleep walker usually has a blank, glassy-eyed look. Their eyes are open, but they may not see the actual environment they are in.
The event can be minor, lasting only seconds, and it can last up to thirty or so minutes. Most people don’t remember the event the next morning, and will be disoriented or groggy if awakened during the event.
What is the cause?
There are many things that are unknown about adult sleep walking, including a definitive cause for the disorder. Nobody knows for sure. There are several things that can possibly trigger or lead to sleep walking. Some of these include the following:
Environmental factors such as stress, sleep deprivation, poor sleeping schedule, alcohol or other drugs such as stimulants, sedatives, neuroleptics, or antihistamines.
Physiological factors, including acid reflux (GERD), seizures, pregnancy, menstruation, obstructive sleep apnea, fever, abnormal heart rhythm, panic attacks, posttramautic stress disorder (PTSD), or dissociative states.
Genetic factors also play a role. If you have a relative with the disorder you are much more likely to have it yourself.
How can I be tested?
There are several problems and disorders that can be mistaken for sleep walking or even cause sleep walking. Some of these, such as seizures and obstructive sleep apnea can be very serious. This is why anyone who suspects they are sleep walking should be formally evaluated by a doctor who specializes in sleep disorders.
The doctor will likely request a thorough medical evaluation and ask detailed questions about your medical history. You may need a polysomnogram in order to diagnose the problem. A polysomnogram is done by placing sensors on the surface of the skin that records the body’s functioning, including brain wave activity, heart rate, oxygen levels, eye movement, etc. This painless procedure takes place overnight while the patient is asleep and is then reviewed by a specialist.
What are the dangers of sleep walking?
Sleep walking itself is not particularly dangerous; it doesn’t seem to cause any damage internally to the brain or any other body part. It is the act of moving around while still asleep that can be the danger. Some sleep walkers lose their balance, trip on objects or run into furniture or walls. Stairs can cause an accident, and if the sleep walker gets outdoors, has access to a swimming pool or a car, the accident could be fatal.
While many people may avoid accidents while sleep walking, the risk is too great to avoid seeking treatment. There are many non-invasive treatments available, and for peace of mind, it is worth it to discuss it with a doctor.
How is it treated?
Every individual is different, so treatment will vary from person to person. But on a basic level, treatment starts with making your environment safe in order to decrease your risk of injury if sleep walking occurs. This might include sleeping on the ground floor, removing obstacles that you might trip over, installing an alarmed motion detector for nighttime use, locking up weapons (including knives), locking all windows and doors, and installing extra locks on external doors.
You will also want to consider making some simple lifestyle changes to reduce the likelihood of an episode. Some things you can do include: avoiding alcohol or other medications (as recommended by a doctor), reducing your stress, treating any other sleep disorders or conditions that may exacerbate the problem, getting a full night’s sleep on a regular basis, and reducing distractions in the bedroom such as light and noise.
If changing your lifestyle is not enough to resolve the problem, you may want to consider the other treatments. Hypnosis is one effective way work through sleep walking problems. Medical intervention with medications is recommended if other treatment options are not effective and if other sleep disorders are present and must be treated with medication. Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant or a benzodiazepine to help prevent sleep walking episodes.
Sleep walking in adults, while not extremely common, is something that many people deal with. Because there is the potential for injury, and since sleep walking can be triggered by other serious medical conditions, it’s always best to seek the advice of a doctor if this is something you suspect. Not only can you improve your quality of sleep, you may also improve your quality of life.