Often dramatized in cartoons with comic characters narrowly avoiding numerous dangers in their sleep, sleepwalking is a very real and sometimes frightening condition. Affected sleepers can perform activities as complicated as preparing food, changing clothes, and even taking the car out for a spin.
Sleepwalking occurs during the non-REM, or non-dreaming part of sleep. This is usually when sleepers get their deepest sleep and happens during the first third of the night sleep cycle. Sleepwalking doesn’t occur during naps because the body never enters the state of deep sleep required for it.
When sleepwalking, a person will get up and perform anything from basic to complex tasks as though in a daze. The eyes are usually open, but tend to stare blankly without focusing on any one thing. While sleepwalkers sometimes talk in their sleep, the words are usually nonsensical or difficult to understand.
Sleepwalking is most common in children, with a peak incidence around 11-12 years of age. Most children grow out of their sleepwalking around puberty, but sometimes the condition persists into adulthood.
It can be difficult to determine what causes sleepwalking. There is a clear genetic predisposition, meaning that if a parent or sibling sleepwalks there is a higher chance that a person will also develop the sleep disorder. Often the cause is related to an emotional issue such as stress or anxiety. Children who sleepwalk are more likely to have incidents if they are behind in their sleep or are ill.
In adults sleepwalking is usually attributed to high levels of stress, sleep deprivation, irregular sleep cycles, or intoxication. If the patient is ill or has a fever the incidence of sleepwalking tends to increase. Some drugs such as sedatives, tranquilizers, neuroleptics, stimulants, and antihistamines can cause sleepwalking.
Sometimes sleepwalking can be attributed to other medical conditions such as sleep apnea, cardiac arrhythmias, nighttime asthma or seizures, reflux disorders or psychiatric disorders. In and of themselves these conditions do not cause sleepwalking, but if a person is predisposed to sleepwalking they may begin to have incidents. Often sleepwalking related to a medical disorder will go away as the medical condition improves.