Depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) increase the risk of sleepwalking. An estimated 3.6 percent of the adult population in the U.S. are prone to sleepwalking. Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine have found a link between depression, anxiety and OCD as risk factors of sleepwalking.
Sleepwalking is the “arousal of non-REM sleep,” and can lead to serious consequences, such as injury and impaired psychosocial function. Although the exact cause of sleepwalking is unknown, it is believed certain psychological and psychiatric conditions increase occurrences of sleepwalking.
In a study, published in Neurology, researchers said, “Apart from a study we did 10 years ago in the European general population, where we reported a prevalence of two percent of sleepwalking, there are nearly no data regarding the prevalence of nocturnal wanderings in the adult general population. In the United States, the only prevalence rate was published 30 years ago.”
The study is the first to use a large representation of the American population. Researchers also aimed to show the importance of the use of medications as well as mental disorders associated with sleepwalking.
Participants were asked questions in regards to sleepwalking, including frequency of sleepwalking, duration of sleepwalking and any inappropriate or dangerous habits during sleepwalking. If a patient did not report incidences of sleepwalking within the last year, they were asked if they experienced sleepwalking as a child. Other questions included potential family history of sleepwalking or night terrors or violent behaviors during sleep.
The study revealed that those with depression had higher incidences of sleepwalking (3.5 times more likely). Furthermore, those with an alcohol-dependency or OCD were also more likely to experience sleepwalking. Those on antidepressants experienced higher rates of sleepwalking as well.
Lead author, Maurice Ohayon, M.D., said, “There is no doubt an association between nocturnal wanderings and certain conditions, but we don’t know the direction of the causality. Are the medical conditions provoking sleepwalking, or is it vice versa? Or perhaps it’s the treatment that is responsible.”
Although more research is needed to raise awareness of sleepwalking, Dr. Ohayon concluded, “We’re not expecting them to diagnose sleepwalking, but they might detect symptoms that could be indices of sleepwalking.”
Causes and symptoms of sleepwalking
When we sleep our bodies go through different sleep cycles – the deepest cycle being rapid eye movement (REM). Sleep involves switching between several cycles of REM sleep and non-REM sleep, and sleepwalking has been found to occur in the non-REM sleep cycle. Sleepwalking that occurs during REM sleep is known as a behavior disorder and commonly occurs closer to the morning.
An exact cause of sleepwalking is unknown, but possible causes that could contribute to it include:
- Lack of sleep
- Alcohol, sedatives or other medications
- Medical conditions
- Mental disorders
- Organic brain syndrome – more common in the elderly
Risk of sleepwalking
Sleepwalking doesn’t necessarily mean the person is walking, sometimes sleepwalking can just refer to an individual sitting up and looking around. Others may actually get out of bed, move around the house and even open cupboards or drawers. This is where the risk of injury increases as the person may fall down the stairs, drop something, or slip and fall. In very rare, extreme cases a person may even enter a vehicle and drive away.
When a person is sleepwalking their eyes are open, although they will appear to have a blank look on their face. In familiar settings a person sleepwalking can easily get around. If you talk to a sleepwalker, they may attempt to reply but, more often than not, it won’t make sense.
Sleepwalking episodes typically last for 10 minutes or longer. The individual may wake up on the spot or can return back to bed. The person often has no recollection of sleepwalking, and even if they wake up during the sleepwalking episode, they will be confused and not understand what is going on.
Best ways to control sleepwalking
If you catch someone sleepwalking, you should make sure their surroundings are safe. You may wish to gently guide them back to bed. In order to prevent another episode you can gently wake them and then they can easily go back to sleep. Try not to shout, make loud noises or physically restrain them as they may lash out, causing harm to themselves or to you.
Treatment for sleepwalking
Often sleepwalking does not require the attention of a doctor and, unless it is causing the individual harm, can go untreated. Treatment for sleepwalking should occur if the individual is facing more serious mental disorders that require treatment, such as depression or anxiety.
Additionally, if the sleepwalking is associated with other symptoms, frequent or persistent, or have involved dangerous activities such as driving, you should seek out medical advice.
Types of treatment include the use of mild tranquilizers and ensuring the environment where the person sleepwalks is safe by keeping carpets down, ensuring items are not in the middle of the floor and the rooms are well lit.
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