Sleepwalking (Somnambulism)


Miller-Keane Medical Dictionary, 2000  


Rising from bed and walking during an apparent state of sleep


Much mystery has been attached to this, although it is no more mysterious than dreaming. The chief difference between the two is that the sleepwalker, besides dreaming, is also using the part of the brain that stimulates walking. This usually occurs during the first third of the night and lasts for a few minutes to a half hour. It is most likely to happen during periods of emotional stress and usually ceases when the source of anxiety is removed. Often it occurs only once or twice and does not happen again. If sleepwalking recurs frequently, it may stem from serious emotional distress.




Disorders that intrude into the sleep process and create disruptive sleep-related events.

These behaviors and experiences occur usually while sleeping, and are most often infrequent and mild. They may happen often enough or become so bothersome that medical attention is required.

The parasomnias are divided into four groups:

What are Arousal Disorders?

Arousal disorders are parasomnia disorders presumed to be due to an abnormal arousal mechanism. Forced arousal from sleep can induce episodes. The "classical" arousal disorders are sleepwalking(somnambulism), sleep terrors and confusional arousals. Experts believe the various types of arousal disorders are related and share some characteristics. These arousals occur when a person is in a mixed state of being both asleep and awake, generally coming from the deepest stage of nondreaming sleep. This means a person is awake enough to act out complex behaviors but still asleep and not aware or able to remember these actions.

What are the causes arousal disorders?

These disorders tend to run in families and are more common in children. Being over tired, having a fever or taking certain medications may make it worse. Because disorders of arousal are less common in adults, having an evaluation is important. In some cases, these disorders are triggered by other conditions, such as sleep apnea, heartburn, or periodic limb movement during sleep. A sleep specialist should evaluate the person's behaviors and medical history.

How are arousal disorders treated?

If it is a severe case that leads to injury or involves violence, excessive eating, or disturbs the bedpartner or family, treatment by a sleep specialist may be necessary. Treatment might involve medical intervention with perscription drugs or behavior modification through hypnosis or relaxation/mental imagery.

Diagnostic Classification Steering Committee, Thorpy MJ, Chairman. International Classification of Sleep Disorders: Diagnostic and Coding Manual. Rochester, Minnesota: American Sleep Disorders Association, 1990.

Kryger, Meir H., Roth, Thomas, Dement, William C. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine, 2nd Edition. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: W.B. Saunders Company, 1994.

Parasomnias: Things That Go Bump in the Night, A patient-education brochure. American Sleep Disorders Association, 1992

Confusional Arousals - Sleep Inertia

Confusional arousals consist of confusion during and following arousals from sleep, most typically from deep sleep in the first part of the night.

Sleep Research Zurich Papers - Abstracts 1995

Sleepwalking (Somnambulism)

What is Sleepwalking?

A series of complex behaviors that are initiated during slow wave sleep and result in walking during sleep.

What are the symptoms of Sleepwalking?

Ambulation (walking or moving about) that occurs during sleep. The onset typically occurs in prepubertal children.

Associated features include:

How Common is Sleepwalking?

Medical reports show that about 18% of the population are prone to sleepwalking. It is more common in children than in adolescents and adults. Boys are more likely to sleepwalk than girls. The highest prevalence of sleepwalking was 16.7% at age 11 to 12 years of age.  Sleepwalking can have a genetic tendency. If a child begins to sleepwalk at the age of 9, it often lasts into adulthood.

How serious is Sleepwalking?

For some, the episodes of sleepwalking occur less than once per month and do not result in harm to the patient or others. Others experience episodes more than once per month, but not nightly, and do not result in harm to the patient or others. In its most severe form, the episodes occur almost nightly or are associated with physical injury.  The sleepwalker may feel embarrassment, shame, guilt, anxiety and confusion when they are told about their sleepwalking behavior.

It is very important that if the sleepwalker exits the house, or is having frequent episodes and injuries are occurring -- DO NOT delay, it is time to seek professional help from a sleep disorder center in your area. There have been some tragedies with sleepwalkers, don't let it happen to your loved one!

In a few instances, sleepwalking can result in violent behavior. It is very important that a chronic sleepwalker seek professional help and follow the suggestions listed below to prevent having any violent episodes.

There was amurder trial in Arizona where Scott Falater was accused of stabbing his wife 44 times and drowning her while sleepwalking. If you would like to read about it, the Arizona Republic carried articles about the trial. Several sleep specialists were expert witnesses for Scott. For background information on the case, the Phoenix New Times did a very good story on it. (6/15/99)

What can be done about sleepwalking?

There are some things a sleepwalker can do:

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