Why Do People Sleepwalk? - Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
Have you ever seen someone sleepwalking? Did you wake them or leave them alone? Find out common causes of sleepwalking and what you should do if you're faced with a sleepwalker.

Somnambulism

Bob has recently gained a bit of weight. He swears he isn't eating any more than he once did but his wife also swears she hears him opening the fridge every night after they go to bed. Who is telling the truth? It may be both of them. His wife may indeed hear Bob rummaging through the fridge at night but Bob may not know it because he is experiencing what is known formally as somnambulism or commonly as sleepwalking. Somn- means sleep and 'ambulation' refers to walking. Let's find out the causes of sleepwalking and look at treatment options.

A painting of a woman that is sleepwalking.
Sleepwalk

Causes of Sleepwalking

Bob is currently sick with a fever and has recently been complaining of a lot of stress on the job as a result of his boss regularly switching his schedule from day to night shifts. These changes have resulted in sleep deficiency. Bob is also drinking a lot of alcohol to help him 'relax'. Fevers, sleep deficiency, stress, crazy sleep schedules, alcohol and drug-abuse are all possible triggers for sleepwalking.

Bob is also eating poorly as a result of all this and suffers from a magnesium deficiency which can also trigger sleepwalking. But that's not all. In addition to all these problems, Bob has several health conditions for which he's taking medication. Some medical conditions, like depression, can be a trigger for sleepwalking. In fact, many medications could lead to sleepwalking, including:

  • Antidepressants
  • Sedatives and tranquilizers
  • Some antibiotics, drugs that kill bacteria
  • Antiparkinsonian drugs
  • Anticonvulsants

Treatment

If Bob were sleepwalking only occasionally, there would be no real need to treat his somnambulism. Children who experience sleepwalking, for example, usually grow out of it. However, it may help to lock windows and doors and either remove or pad sharp objects or corners when living with a person who sleepwalks, especially if they're a child. If you ever see a person sleepwalking, try to carefully lead them back to bed. While waking a sleepwalker isn't usually dangerous, they may be agitated or confused when awoken.

In some cases, sleepwalking may need to be treated if it's tied to an underlying disorder. In such situations, that disorder or habit should be addressed. In other instances, professional counseling with a behavioral therapist may be helpful to help train the person on how to avoid sleepwalking through proper mental imagery and relaxation techniques that help a person reduce stress. For those who sleepwalk regularly, or something called anticipatory awakenings could be tried. This involves waking the sleepwalker 15-20 minutes before they usually sleepwalk. Then, the person is kept awake through the time it typically takes the episode to occur. The hope is to break the sleepwalking habit.

Lesson Summary

Sleepwalking is formally called somnambulism. It can be caused by medical conditions, like depression, and medications such as antibiotics, antiparkinsonian drugs, and sedatives. Other triggers for sleepwalking include lifestyle factors:

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