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The Science Behind Sleepwalking

First added 30th July 2021

By Lewis Ridley

4 min read

Many of us have experienced an episode of sleepwalking at some point in our lives, particularly around childhood. If you’ve ever woken up in a different room or on the other side of your bedroom, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about.

Sleepwalking can be subtle to extreme, with some people doing the wildest of things. However, what exactly is sleepwalking? And is there any science behind it? If you’re curious about this and want to learn more, you’re in the right place. Let’s jump straight into it.

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What is Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking, also referred to as somnambulism, is an episode that occurs during sleep, particularly nonrapid eye movement sleep (NREM). This sleepwalking episode can involve something as simple as sitting up to full standing and moving around. In some cases, people can even start moving things around.

These sleepwalking episodes can occur multiple times throughout the night and happen around 1-2 hours into sleep. Interestingly, sleepwalking effects 6.9% of the population at least once during their lifetime, and it’s more prevalent in children.

However, sleepwalking isn’t categorised as a sleep disorder unless it starts to cause disturbances to other parts of your life. When it is categorised as a sleep disorder, the individual with it might be labelled as a parasomnia.

How Common is Sleepwalking?

Despite 6.9% of people experiencing at least one episode of sleepwalking throughout their life, the regularity of continued sleepwalking diminishes as people enter adulthood.

When you look at the comparisons between children and adults, it’s estimated that 29% of children experience sleepwalking, with episodes peaking between the ages of 10 and 13. The amount of such episodes in adults is significantly lower, at around 4%.

However, despite all these statistics looking very convincing, calculating sleepwalking percentages and frequency is very difficult. Most of the sleepwalking episodes people experience are forgotten, and out of embarrassment, many might not mention they had one. Therefore, as with anything related to statistics, take the above estimates with a pinch of salt.

 

What Causes Sleepwalking?

As previously mentioned, children suffer from sleepwalking more commonly than adults. During this time, the cause is likely attributed to age. However, when sleepwalking isn’t outgrown and continues into later life, other causes can be identified.

Below, we’ll go through some of the causes identified by science.

Stress

In the modern world, it’s common to be stressed. This can come from something as simple as daily chores or day-to-day work. However, if you experience it in excess, you can start to trigger sleep problems, such as sleepwalking.

Stress and anxiety can impact sleep, but one study found that sleepwalking could be triggered by a single stressful moment during the day. Given that sleepwalking can be triggered by such a small thing, it’s important to make sure you’re staying calm as you go about your day.

Genetics and Hereditary Causes

Sometimes, good old-fashioned genes are to blame for our problems in life, and sleepwalking isn’t any different. There is a collection of evidence that shows sleepwalking, and other sleep disorders, can run throughout your family.

For children with no family history of sleepwalking, the chance of them developing it is 22%. However, if their parents have sleepwalked, the chances increase to as much as 61%!

Unfortunately, if the issues are a result of genetics, there isn’t a whole lot you can do. External factors will help alleviate the problem, but it could be an uphill battle.

Sleep Deprivation

If you’re tired and sleep-deprived, you could develop a higher chance of sleepwalking. There is some research to support this as well. One study found through MRI scans that patients who were sleep-deprived would be more likely to experience a sleepwalking episode than if they weren’t.

The bottom line? Get more sleep and make sure it’s high quality.

Breathing Problems

Those who suffer from different breathing difficulties could experience more sleepwalking episodes.

Disorders like obstructive sleep apnea can cause periods where you stop breathing during sleep, and it can cause other problems like fatigue and tiredness during the day. However, it can also result in sleepwalking, especially for those with severe versions of the disorder. If you have it mild, you might not see any increase in sleepwalking episodes during the night.

Breathing disorders have also been seen to impact children, particularly those with asthma. However, the relationship is hard to determine, as the sleepwalking occurs only when the child begins taking montelukast – a medication used to treat allergies.

And Many More…

As well as the above, there are a ton of other potential causes to sleepwalking. Here’s a longer list if you’re interested in learning more:

  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Noises and disturbances during the night
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Migraines
  • Changes to your sleep environment
  • Illness or fever
  • Going to bed with a full bladder

The list does go on, but the evidence starts to dry up. When it comes to sleepwalking, there could be 101 causes to why the event is occurring. However, with the ones listed above, you should have a pretty good idea from here on out.

Is Sleepwalking Dangerous?

You’d be thankful to know most sleepwalking incidents don’t result in injury. However, that’s not to say that they go without anything bad happening. Depending on how severe the sleepwalking is and how many times it happens, it could become a particularly dangerous activity.

Sleepwalking can span from a simple walk around the bed to attempting to drive! It gets more dangerous when the latter starts to happen more frequently. In fact, one study found that 57.9% of people get injured during a sleepwalking episode.

This usually happens because they fall down the stairs or picking something up. Take it from someone who experiences sleepwalking frequently, picking up the wrong thing can be a disaster. I once tried to rearrange my cacti on my shelf when sleepwalking. It’s safe to say this didn’t end well for my hands!

Of course, most of the time, sleepwalking is harmless. But to help someone avoid hurting themselves, if you spot them sleepwalking, wake them slowly. Don’t worry, the myth about waking sleepwalkers isn’t true, they won’t go crazy!

How is Sleepwalking Treated?

Sleepwalking is a difficult one to treat and sometimes if you do go to the doctor about it, they’ll probably perform a sleep study to learn more about the condition. This involves checking blood, oxygen, and other things whilst you sleep. However, this will only occur in rare and severe instances.

In most cases, the condition will improve on its own. Sleepwalking doesn’t happen frequently in most people and will improve as you grow older. For the majority of the time, the episodes will become less frequent and eventually disappear.

Of course, as you’ve seen above, there are other underlying causes that could impact sleepwalking. If these involve stress or anxiety, treating these first can help to relieve secondary symptoms like sleepwalking. However, relieving stress and anxiety is a whole other article. Check out these quick tips if you’re looking for more information.

Closing Thoughts

Sleepwalking is an interesting and infrequent sleeping problem that often starts in childhood and disappears as we grow older. However, from time to time, we can sometimes experience episodes in adulthood. These can range from slight to severe, and sometimes have underlying conditions.

However, most of the time, these episodes are nothing to worry about and often go by themselves. As with anything health-related, if you’re worried, speak to your GP. They’ll be able to direct you to a specialist if the condition is particularly bad.

If you think your mattress or bed is to blame for your frequent sleepwalking episodes, then maybe a new one is what you need. For information, get in touch with the team here.

 

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