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Facts on Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking has been described in medical literature dating before Hippocrates (460 BC-370 BC). In Shakespeare's tragic play, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth's famous sleepwalking scene ("out, damned spot") is ascribed to her guilt and resulting insanity as a consequence of her involvement in the murder of her father-in-law.

  • Sleepwalking is characterized by complex behavior (walking) accomplished while asleep.
  • Occasionally nonsensical talking may occur while sleepwalking.
  • The person's eyes are commonly open but have a characteristic glassy "look right through you" character.
  • This activity most commonly occurs during middle childhood and young adolescence.
  • Approximately 15% of children between 4-12 years of age will experience sleepwalking.
  • Generally sleepwalking behaviors are resolved by late adolescence; however, approximately 10% of all sleepwalkers begin their behavior as teens.
  • A genetic tendency has been noted.

There are four stages of sleep. Stages 1, 2, and 3 are characterized as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the sleep cycle associated with dreaming as well as surges of important hormones essential for proper growth and metabolism. Each sleep cycle (stages 1,2,3, and REM) lasts about 90-100 minutes and repeats throughout the night. Thus the average person experiences 4-5 complete sleep cycles per night.

  • Sleepwalking characteristically occurs during the first or second sleep cycle during stage 3.
  • Due to the short time frame involved, sleepwalking tends not to occur during naps.
  • Upon waking, the sleepwalker has no memory of his behaviors.

What Causes Sleepwalking?

Genetic factors

Sleepwalking occurs more frequently in identical twins, and is 10 times more likely to occur if a first-degree relative has a history of sleepwalking.

Environmental factors

Sleep deprivation, chaotic sleep schedules, fever, stress, magnesium deficiency, and alcohol intoxication can trigger sleepwalking.

Drugs, for example, sedative/hypnotics (drugs that promote sleep), neuroleptics (drugs used to treat psychosis), minor tranquilizers (drugs that produce a calming effect), stimulants (drugs that increase activity), and antihistamines (drugs used to treat symptoms of allergy) can cause sleepwalking.

Physiologic factors

  • The length and depth of slow wave sleep, which is greater in young children, may be a factor in the increased frequency of sleepwalking in children.
  • Conditions, such as pregnancy and menstruation, are known to increase the frequency of sleepwalking.

Associated medical conditions

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/29/2016

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Medical Dictionary