How To Treat Sleepwalking

Posted on: 11 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Sleepwalking has been in the headlines recently thanks to a string of bizarre cases - and around one in 40 of us do it.


Sleepwalking has had more than its fair share of headlines recently thanks to a string of bizarre cases, the most recent of which was the acquittal last week of a woman who had been charged with attempting to smother her mother.

Donna Sheppard-Saunders (33), held a pillow over her sleeping mother’s face for 30 seconds before she woke up and realised what she was doing. The court accepted her defence that she was sleepwalking and unaware of her actions.

It is not the first time that a sleepwalking defence has proved successful. In the late 80's, a 23-year old Canadian, Kenneth Parks, was acquitted after claiming that he was sleepwalking when he drove 15 miles to his in-laws’ house and stabbed his mother-in-law to death.

Sleepwalking is a poorly understood phenomenon that typically occurs during the first third of the night. It is much more common in young children, who often grow out of it as they get older, but for a significant minority it persists into adulthood and it is estimated that one in 40 British adults sleepwalks regularly.

Brain electroencephalography (EEG) wave patterns show that sleepwalkers are in a state of incomplete awakening, where parts of the brain are functioning normally while others remain “asleep”. There is a genetic component - it often runs in families - and possible triggers include stress, lack of sleep and alcohol. There is also growing interest in the role of heavy snoring and other sleep-related breathing difficulties, treatment of which seems to result in a dramatic reduction in sleepwalking.

Few children who sleepwalk come to serious harm, but in a recent study a third of adults reported that they had injured themselves or others while sleepwalking. But it is far more usual for people to hurt themselves. Last month Rachel Ward, an A level student, fell 25ft from her bedroom window at her parents’ home in Sussex. She landed on her feet and was lucky to emerge with nothing more than mild concussion and a sore back.

One reason adults may be more likely than children to suffer injury is they spend more time sleeping in unfamiliar environments. Sleepwalkers are in “autopilot” and navigate by memory, which explains why they often get into trouble when they are away from home - which is exactly what happened in another well-publicised case involving a 17-year-old German student who went to stay with his sister in 2007. He stepped out of her fourth-floor apartment during the night, breaking an arm and a leg in the fall, but was still asleep when police discovered him on the pavement below.

However it is not just injury that can occur. Sleep specialists at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney published a very unusual case in 2004 involving a middle-aged woman whose relationship was in jeopardy after her partner discovered that she had been having sex with strangers while asleep. She had no recollection of the events and the couple only became suspicious when they started finding used condoms scattered around their house.

So what should you do if you are, or a member of your family is, a sleepwalker? First, don’t be too alarmed by the tales above - serious incidents are rare. Self-help measures include getting plenty of sleep, not drinking heavily and dealing with any underlying stress. Your GP may be able to help by prescribing medication (usually clonazepam - a member of the diazepam family), though results are mixed and it is best avoided if possible. He or she may refer you to a sleep specialist if you have symptoms that suggest sleep-related breathing difficulties.

If someone sleepwalks in your home, it pays to take simple steps to reduce the likelihood of them coming to harm, such as locking children’s bedroom windows and removing obvious hazards. If you find someone sleepwalking, gently guide them back to bed. There is no need to wake them but, contrary to popular lore, doing so won’t cause lasting harm.

By Dr Mark Porter

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