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What is Somnambulism?

By Laura Evans
Updated May 17, 2024
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Somnambulism, or sleepwalking, is a condition where an individual gets up and walks while he is actually asleep. Most sleepwalkers are children between the ages of four and 12, although adults can also sleepwalk. Somnambulists, or those who sleepwalk, do not typically need medical treatment unless there is an underlying medical or psychological reason for the somnambulism.

Sleeping is a complex procedure. People experience rapid eye movement sleep (REM) typically when they dream, and non-rapid movement sleep (NREM) where people move into deep sleep. NREM sleep has four stages, Stage 1 when people feel drowsy, Stage 2 when people are in a light sleep, and Stages 3 and 4 when people are asleep deeply. Sleepwalking typically occurs during Stages 3 and 4 earlier in the night, or during REM sleep closer to the morning.

Somnambulists may walk through the house, perform repetitive tasks, open and close doors, and turn lights on and off. They may get completely dressed or drive a car. Sleepwalkers can have conversations that do not make sense. People who sleepwalk may not remember the incident when they awake.

No one knows exactly what causes somnambulism among children. Adults can sleepwalk if they take drugs that depress the central nervous system, as a result of seizures or because of psychological problems. The elderly may sleepwalk as a result of REM disorders. Somnambulism may also have a genetic factor as sleepwalking appears to run in families.

Children typically "grow out" of sleepwalking without needing medical treatment. Doctors may advise adults to take tests to determine if their somnambulism is related to an underlying medical or physical condition, such as sleep apnea. Physicians may also prescribe tranquilizers for a short period of time to help prevent sleepwalking incidents. In addition, some doctors suggest hypnosis to treat adult sleepwalkers.

The most important treatment for somnambulism is to prevent the person who is sleepwalking from getting hurt. People who sleepwalk can, and do, have accidents such as tripping or falling down stairs. The idea that person can't get injured while sleepwalking is a myth.

Another common myth about somnambulism is that a somnambulist should not be awakened during an episode. This is untrue. It is not dangerous for the somnambulist to be awakened during an incident, although the person may be disoriented or confused for a period of time after waking.

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