It is one of the oddest variations of sleep disorders, the strange phenomenon of a sleeping person arising and walking through the house, at times seemingly searching for something or somebody, all the while in a deep sleep. The condition of somnambulism, or sleepwalking, is so weird that filmmakers have depicted it in comedy scenes.
But somnambulism is no joke for the sleepwalkers and their families, according to a French research study's conclusion that adult sleepwalking is a "potentially serious condition." It said that compared to non-sleepwalkers, somnambulism sufferers have "a higher frequency of daytime sleepiness, fatigue, insomnia, depressive and anxiety symptoms and altered quality of life."
Sleep experts say sleepwalking usually happens in "deep sleep," long after sleep onset and after rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. Because children achieve this deep sleep easier than adults, whose ability to reach it fades during adulthood, scientists say there are more sleepwalking kids than adults. The rough guess is that sleepwalking affects 5 percent of children and less than 2 percent of adults.
Do sleepwalkers hurt themselves? The French study of adults founds that 47 of the 100 sleepwalkers followed reported at least one injurious sleepwalking incident, including one patient who sleepwalked right out a third-floor window and sustained several fractures. Of those injured, 36 reported feeling no pain during the injury, only when they awoke.
A 2016 database review of 51 sleepwalking studies, however, said it found no reported injuries causing hospitalization or death, which could mean low prevalence of sleepwalking or underreporting of injuries.
What causes sleepwalking? Sleep experts present a long list of possible causes, including:
How is sleepwalking treated? In much the same way as many other sleep disorders, usually starting with behavioral programs that modify the sleep schedule, including pre-emptive wake-ups to prevent somnambulism. If underlying conditions are suspected, they should be explored and treated. Psychological programs may be suggested for stress-related issues and hypnosis is another option.
Parents of sleepwalking children are advised to inspect the entire house and eliminate dangers that might be encountered during somnambulism.