Most of us have seen the classic television trope of a sleepwalker: a person, arms outstretched, staggering about the house as if directed by a video game controller.
But what is sleepwalking, exactly — and what causes it?
Fox News Digital spoke to a variety of experts and health professionals in order to share insights into an often confusing condition.
What is sleepwalking?
The scientific term for sleepwalking is “somnambulism,” meaning someone who walks around while asleep, as Dr. Raj Dasgupta, chief medical adviser at Sleep Advisor in California, said.
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A person in a sleepwalking episode is in a deep sleep and is unaware of his or her surroundings.
Nearly 11.4% of people are prone to sleepwalking, according to a survey of more than 1,000 individuals by Amerisleep.
“Sleep is divided into REM and non-REM sleep,” Dasgupta said. “Sleepwalking usually occurs during the deeper states of non-REM sleep.”
As deeper non-REM sleep is typically experienced during the first part of the night, sleepwalking is also more common earlier in someone’s sleep, said Dasgupta.
Children tend to sleepwalk more than adults do, he said — and “sleepwalking is usually outgrown by the teen years.”
What causes sleepwalking?
Scientists have no solid answer for why some people tend to roam while completely asleep, but they do have some ideas.
Genetics do play a part, Dasgupta told Fox News Digital, and a person who has a parent who sleepwalks is more likely to do the same.
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Environmental factors, including sleep deprivation, stress and fever, or a change in a person’s sleep schedule or sleeping environment, can also increase the chances of sleepwalking.
“Sometimes sleepwalking can be triggered by underlying conditions that interfere with sleep, resulting in multiple arousals and awakenings,” said Dasgupta.
And while sleepwalking can start at any age, in adults it is more likely to emerge along with underlying conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea or medications, Dasgupta noted.
Certain sleep medications, such as Ambien, have been known to cause sleepwalking, Dr. Kelsey Latimer, a Florida-based psychologist, told Fox News Digital.
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Some people who take sleep medications have found themselves not only walking, but also driving, eating, texting and online shopping — all while completely asleep.
Those who are taking one of these kinds of medications and find that they are doing more than just snoozing at night should talk to their doctor immediately, Latimer said.
Should you always see a doctor for sleepwalking?
The decision about whether to see a doctor for sleepwalking depends on a host of factors, experts said.
“Isolated incidents of sleepwalking often don’t signal any serious problems or require treatment,” said Dasgupta.
Still, if people find themselves frequently sleepwalking, that could be a sign of another condition.
“Sleepwalking is classified as a parasomnia, which is a term for unusual behaviors that people experience prior to falling asleep, while asleep, or during the arousal period between sleep and wakefulness,” Dasgupta said.
Additionally, there could be psychological impacts associated with sleepwalking, said Latimer.
She recommended that anyone who frequently sleepwalks pursue a sleep study to get to the root of the issue.
How can people tell if they sleepwalk?
It is extremely unlikely that a person will remember sleepwalking, Dr. June Seliber-Klein, chief medical officer at Ognomy Sleep, told Fox News Digital.
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“Parasomnias are usually associated with minimal awareness and amnesia of the event,” said Seliber-Klein, who is based in California.
Sometimes, sleepwalkers can leave “clues” about their habits, such as a lamp that was mysteriously knocked over or other items that are out of place.
Dr. Chelsie Rohrscheib, PhD, a neurologist who works at the sleep monitoring company Wesper in New York, told Fox News Digital that partners are often the ones to recognize sleepwalking.
“If your bed partner notices that you frequently sit upright during sleep or get out of bed and move around, while not being responsive or able to communicate, then it’s likely you’re sleepwalking,” she said.
Safety tips for sleepwalkers
Those who find themselves sleepwalking, or who suspect they are sleepwalking, can take some steps to avoid harming themselves or others during an episode.
“This includes locking doors and windows, so it’s difficult to leave the room and house, removing sharp and dangerous objects, and removing tripping hazards,” Rohrscheib told Fox News Digital.
“Bed partners and family should avoid abruptly waking a sleepwalker, as this may cause panic.”
It is also a good idea to identify triggers of sleepwalking episodes and work to avoid those, said Dasgupta.
“Establish regular sleep habits and practice good sleep hygiene,” he recommended.
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To reduce the risk of falling, a person could move their mattress to the floor or find alternate sleeping arrangements entirely, Seliber-Klein suggested.
“Sometimes we advise sleeping in a sleeping bag or setting up a motion sensor alarm,” she said.
Experts say people should not wake someone who is sleepwalking, but that they should not let them continue roaming about the house.
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“Bed partners and family should avoid abruptly waking a sleepwalker, as this may cause panic,” Rohrscheib told Fox News Digital.
“Instead, aim to keep the sleepwalker’s environment safe and gently guide them back to bed.”
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