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Sleepwalking: When the Thing Going Bump in the Night is You

Does someone you know sleepwalk? (image via twentysixcats on Flickr)

Ever woken up in the living room confused because you were sure you went to sleep in bed?  Ever noticed a plate or cup next to the bed in the morning that wasn’t there when you went to sleep?  Do you find yourself frequently searching for your keys in the morning only to find them in some unusual place?  If any of these sounds like you, it may feel like you are having some kind of memory problem but the real culprit may be nocturnal wandering, aka sleepwalking.

New research conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine and published in the journal of the American Academy of Neurology revealed that almost 4% of U.S. adults are spending some of their time asleep wandering around and almost 30% of us sleepwalk at some point in our lives.  The intent of the study was to gauge the prevalence of sleepwalking in the U.S. adult population and the results were significantly higher than expected.  The only existing studies on sleepwalking prevalence were 10 and 30 years old, the most recent of which indicated only 2% of the population were prone to this sleep difficulty.

The study included almost 20,000 participants from 15 states.  The research team used phone interviews to learn about participant’s medical history, mental health, use of medications, and sleepwalking history.  The family history, childhood sleepwalking experience, and existence of other sleep disorders were also tracked for each participant.

The reason we sleep walk is unknown although experts agree that the use of certain medications and certain psychological conditions can trigger the disorder.  On the surface, it may not seem like a big deal to wake up in another room or misplace your keys, but sleepwalking can be very dangerous to the person sleepwalking and to others around them.  People have been known to eat, leave their homes, and even drive while sleepwalking.

In addition to gaining a more accurate idea of the prevalence of sleepwalking amongst American adults, the study also found that people with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and substance abuse problems are significantly more likely to sleepwalk than those who don’t.   Participants taking SSRI medications for depression were also more likely to sleepwalk more than once a month, in some cases 3 times as likely.

The study also revealed that there may be a genetic component to chronic sleepwalking.  Amongst participants who reported sleepwalking themselves, 30% also reported a close relative who was also known to walk in their sleep.

There is no cure for sleepwalking and treatment options are limited.  If someone in your house is sleepwalking, experts recommend that you don’t attempt to walk them.  It is better to take them by the arm and try to guide them back to bed.  While it is not dangerous to the sleepwalker to wake them, they may be disoriented and confused and may lash out at the person trying to help them.

 

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