What to Do If You or Someone Else Is a Sleepwalker

Signs, causes and ways to address this problem
What to Do If You or Someone Else Is a Sleepwalker

It sounds like a scene from a zombie movie, but a sleepwalker can actually move—even drive—as if he were awake.

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Knowing the signs of a sleepwalker and what to do about the problem can help keep him safe.

Signs of a sleepwalker

Some people with abnormal sleep movements just sit up in bed and move their legs as if walking. Others may actually arise and complete tasks like dressing, undressing, eating, urinating or even driving.

A sleepwalking person walks or makes other movements that appear to have a purpose. This happens when he is in a state of partial wakefulness from the deep sleep cycle.

A sleepwalking episode happens about one or two hours after going to bed and can last anywhere from one to 30 minutes.

Sleepwalkers have open eyes and a blank facial expression. It’s usually difficult and often impossible to wake them up. But when they do wake up, they don’t remember a thing about their overnight behavior.

Typical causes of sleepwalking

“Sleepwalking and related arousal disorders represent one of the least researched areas of sleep medicine,” says Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, MS, Director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cleveland Clinic. “So we aren’t sure of the exact causes.” Even so, she says experts believe sleepwalking occurs because the brain has trouble properly regulating the sleep and wake cycles.

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Sleepwalking is common in school-aged children and often associated with bedwetting during sleep. It usually goes away on its own, well before adulthood. As the nervous system matures, children begin to sleep through the night.

When it lasts into adulthood, or begins later on in life, there may be other underlying causes.

“Major life stressors like extreme physical or psychological stress, sleep deprivation, a noisy sleeping environment or extensive travel across time zones may cause adults to begin sleepwalking,” says Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer. Other triggers could be sleep apnea or prescription sleep medications.

“When an adult presents with sleepwalking or other abnormal movements or behaviors arising from sleep, we look for an underlying cause by conducting a sleep study in the sleep lab,” she says. Once an underlying cause is identified and treated, the sleepwalking often goes away.

What to do about sleepwalking

For the most part, sleepwalking is harmless, but in some cases, there’s a chance the person could cause harm to himself or others.

“These disorders can be disruptive and lead to sleep deprivation and injury, so it’s a good idea to discuss it with your doctor and decide together whether it needs to be investigated further,” says Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer.

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There are steps you can take to help ensure the safety of a loved one or yourself. To prevent or subdue abnormal sleep movements:

  • Stick to a normal sleep schedule
  • Avoid sleep deprivation
  • Avoid taking unnecessary sleep aid medications
  • Make sure the room is quiet and dark
  • Make others who sleep in the same home or room aware of your sleepwalking

To prevent injury:

  • Lock all doors and windows
  • Install stairway gates
  • Remove breakable objects from around the bed
  • Put car keys away
  • Keep guns and knives out of reach
  • Make sure children do not sleep in a top bunk

Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says that in cases where a person has a history of hurting himself or others, a consultation with a sleep specialist might be necessary. Sometimes, doctors specializing in sleep medicine will prescribe certain medications to manipulate a sleepwalker’s sleep cycle and prevent his abnormal movements.

If you’re not getting a good night’s sleep because you or a loved one is sleepwalking, make an appointment to discuss your concerns with your doctor.

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