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Sleepwalking Disorder

Alternate Names

  • somnambulism
  • noctambulation

Definition

Sleepwalking is a sleep disorder in which an individual performs actions usually associated with wakefulness, while asleep. Often this is walking, but other detailed activities may be performed.

What is going on in the body?

Sleepwalking involves complex motor acts. It occurs mainly during the first third of the night. Sleepwalking occurs during stage 3 or stage 4 sleep. It does not occur during rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

No one knows the exact cause of sleepwalking. It often runs in families. Sleepwalking is most common in school-aged children, and typically goes away after puberty. Fifteen percent of normal children between the ages of 5 and 15 years old sleepwalk.
Sleepwalking that begins in adulthood may be indicative of a more serious problem, and should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

There is no known prevention for sleepwalking. The following measures may decrease the frequency of the sleepwalking.
  • Avoid illegal drugs.
  • Avoid sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and pain medicines.
  • Follow a regular schedule for bedtime and awakening.
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  • Use stress management, including relaxation therapy.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

Diagnosis of sleepwalking begins with a medical history and physical exam. A polysomnogram, or sleep study, can be performed, but in most cases is not needed. The healthcare professional may order other tests to rule out underlying disorders.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Sleepwalking, in and of itself, has no significant long-term effects.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Sleepwalking is not contagious. It poses no risk to others unless the person performs a dangerous activity, such as wielding a knife, during sleepwalking.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Another person can help the sleepwalker in these ways.
  • Gently lead the person back to bed.
  • Help the person avoid becoming overtired.
  • Protect the person from falls or other injuries.
The following method has been shown to reduce or eliminate sleepwalking. It is thought to interrupt the abnormal sleep pattern.
  • Log the number of minutes that pass from the time the person falls asleep to the time sleepwalking starts for several nights.
  • On the following nights, the person should be awakened 15 minutes before the start of the expected sleepwalking episode. This timing is based on the information gathered in the log.
  • The person should be kept awake for 5 minutes.
  • This procedure should be followed for 7 consecutive nights.
  • If sleepwalking begins again, the procedure should be repeated for 7 more consecutive days.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

The measures described to change sleep patterns have no significant side effects.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

After treatment for sleepwalking, the individual should continue to follow preventive measures to avoid a recurrence.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.

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