Somnambulism, also known as sleepwalking, is an episode where a person gets up and walks around while still being in a state of deep sleep. This condition is found in children and adults. In a study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, adult sleepwalking is found to be a serious condition that may induce violent behaviour and also affect their health-related quality of life.
John Peter, 28 years old, working in the hospitality sector from Kochi, Kerala was a sleepwalker when he was between 15 and 17 years of age. Peter’s parents were gentle in waking him up from sleep. “My mother held me by my arms and slowly guided me back to the bed when I was trying to open the door while I was sleepwalking,” recalls Peter.
“They did not shout or scare me, my parents guided me back to my bed while I was sleepwalking and told me the story the next day,” he adds. Recently, in the month of July this year, there were news reports on a six-year-old girl from Kundapura, in the coastal areas of Karnataka, who while sleepwalking, traveled for around two kilometers in the midnight. She wasn’t stopped by anybody and a person from the bar spotted this girl, woke her up from sleep and informed the parents.
Is it harmful to wake a sleepwalker?
There is no harm in waking a sleepwalker unless it is done in a gentle way asserts Dr Sudhir Kumar, neurologist at Apollo Hospital in Hyderabad.
He says, “During a sleepwalking episode, there are instances where the person gets out of bed and goes out of the house. In the rarest cases, commit crimes. This is because while sleepwalking, the brain is still asleep, but the body movements may appear as if the person is awake.”
The eyes of the sleepwalker can be wide open and even closed sometimes. “It is always better to wake the person up while they are sleepwalking to avoid the risk of injuries because the person lacks the ability to differentiate between right and wrong during sleepwalking,” adds Dr Kumar.
There are myths about sleepwalking that claim you should never wake a sleepwalker as they might suffer from brain damage or heart attack due to sudden awakening. Debunking this, Dr Kumar explains, “This popular assumption is a pure myth and it is always better to wake them up and lead them back to their bed to avoid any injuries.”
Injuries in sleepwalking
Sleepwalking episodes can lead to accidents such as falling, bumping into something, mishandling sharp objects, or even worse – harming a person. Sleep specialists opine that when sleepwalkers are exposed to such consequences, it is unlikely they feel any pain during the episode even after suffering an injury. However, they realize the pain after the episode.
“Sleepwalkers usually feel the pain only after the episode and have no clue until somebody brings it to their attention. However, these injuries can be avoided by the loved ones at home and by the expert’s intervention,” says Dr Hiranappa B Udnur, consultant-pulmonologist, Manipal Hospital, Bengaluru.
Sleepwalking is like being in a trance state where most of them would not recall anything until they wake up from that episode, says Dr Naveen Jayaram, consultant psychiatrist, Carewell Health, Bengaluru. He says, “There are instances where the person may not know where the door key is kept but they will find the key and open the door while sleepwalking.” He also says that sleepwalking is more common among children than in adults and it depends on different factors such as trauma and stress.
Effects of sleepwalking
Problem in concentrating: A good night’s sleep is essential for concentration and memory retention. However, a sleepwalker’s sleep is affected which results in affecting their concentration levels.
Difficulty to be awake during daytime: As sleep disruption occurs during sleepwalking, a sleepwalker faces excessive daytime sleepiness.
Talking in their sleep: Sleepwalking can lead to sleep talking, another condition where a person vocalizes in their sleep.
Experiencing nightmares: Recurrent sleepwalking episodes can lead to the person experiencing nightmares.
How to manage sleepwalking
Experts say that sleepwalking can be managed by the following techniques: Meditating for a few minutes before sleep can help you relax your mind and body. Maintaining good sleep hygiene can help in managing sleepwalking, for example, maintain a sleep schedule – try to wake up and sleep at the same time every day. Avoid caffeine or alcohol during bedtime because it can disturb your sleep pattern.
- Waking a sleepwalker is not dangerous. However, instead of nudging them suddenly, they should be gently guided back to his/ her bed.
- Sleepwalking episodes may cause accidents, resulting in injuries. However, it can be prevented with safety measures.
- The condition can be managed by meditating and maintaining good sleep hygiene among other ways.