Sleepwalking, Its Causes and Cures

Most people who sleepwalk do so as pre-adolescents and teenagers, though it can certainly occur in any stage of life. What causes sleepwalking, and is it dangerous? Can it be cured?

In the five stages of sleep, which are characterized by the first four stages of non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep and the final stage of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, sleepwalking usually occurs during phases three and four. Bouts normally last about 30 seconds or so, and can be characterized by just sitting up in bed looking awake but glassy-eyed and actually by walking around the house and moving furniture. Some people have even gone to their autos and driven them.

The more advanced forms of sleepwalking indeed sound scary, but the thing to remember is that, despite popular myth, you won’t harm a person who is sleepwalking if you awaken him or her. In fact, you may prevent accidental injury such as falling down — or crashing the car (which of course would be hard to prevent if a person’s sleepwalking advanced to that stage without intervention).

Sleepwalking is generally inherited and occurs fairly frequently in identical twins. But for all of us, there are triggers that can cause sleepwalking, including sleep deprivation, chaotic schedules, magnesium deficiency, stress and alcohol consumption. Drugs, sedatives and even antihistamines have been associated with sleepwalking  as well.

Arrhythmias, post-traumatic stress syndrome, fevers and psychiatric disorders have also been associated with sleepwalking incidents.

A sleep and medical evaluation is in order if you’ve been seen sleepwalking, or you yourself suspect you’ve been on the prowl. The underlying medical condition triggering sleepwalking is the first line of treatment. Drugs can also be useful. Benzodiazepines, such as estazolam (ProSom), or tricyclic antidepressants, such as trazodone (Desyrel), have been shown to be useful. Clonazepam (Klonopin) in low doses before bedtime and continued for three to six weeks is usually effective.

The bottom line is that sleep is vital to successful living, and though rare, sleepwalking is another symptom of poor sleep and therefore poor daytime performance. Whatever is disrupting your sleep, you need to tackle it medically and professionally for your own sake.

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