A new study's surprising news about how many Americans sleepwalk
It's much more common than doctors thought and it can be dangerous; we bust five myths about nighttime wandering
A new study shows sleepwalking is much more prevalent than it was previously believed. (Clay Sisk / August 8, 2012)
She went to a sleep clinic and was diagnosed with non-REM parasomnia. Runkel's case is unusual; few people sleepwalk as consistently as she does. Now 35, she says she has regularly wandered at night several times a week for most of her life. But a recent national study revealed that many more American adults have experienced sleepwalking than had previously been believed.
In fact, with 30 percent of the population saying they have sleepwalked, chances are that you know someone, or even live with someone, who has experienced it.
To help better understand and deal with night wandering, here is a list of five myths about sleepwalking:
•Myth: Sleepwalking is uncommon.
A recent study of 19,136 Americans age 18 and older found that about 30 percent have experienced nighttime wandering. Study author Dr. Maurice Ohayon, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Stanford Sleep Epidemiology Research Center, says this was the most startling revelation of the study, the first of its kind to track sleepwalking rates on a national level. "The number of the adult population sleepwalking is very high, the opposite of what we were thinking before the study," he says.
•Myth: Sleepwalkers are dreaming.
Ohayon describes it as a "slow-wave sleep" during which the brain's activity is very low. While he says he can't be certain that sleepwalkers aren't experiencing dreams, he says it seems unlikely. Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, Runkel's doctor and director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Sleep Disorders Center, says sleepwalking is most likely to occur during very deep, non-REM sleep that is generally achieved early in the night.
Runkel says she does feel as though she's dreaming when awakened while sleepwalking, describing the sensation as being in between a dream and reality. "When I wake up, my eyes are seeing one thing, whereas in my mind I'm seeing something totally different," she says. "Like I'll be thinking that I'm walking through a forest, but there's a door in front of me. I'll wake up pushing a door open, and my heart is racing, I'm in a panic and I'm so disoriented. ... I'm just trying to figure out where in the world I am."
•Myth: Sleepwalking isn't dangerous.
Though sleepwalking doesn't damage the brain, it can be very dangerous, especially outside the home. "Inside of the home, the subject has a mapping of his surroundings, knowing very well where the furniture is," Ohayon says. At a hotel or in an unfamiliar location, it's more likely a sleepwalker will bump into things, trip or fall. While sleepwalkers' eyes may be open, they're generally running on a sort of autopilot, which makes it easier to wander safely in a familiar environment.
Runkel says she experienced this in college, where her bed was in a loft five or six feet off the ground. She described waking up one time while hanging over the edge of the bed, unable to pull herself up, resulting in a fall and a trip to the emergency room. "The maintenance people built a small railing on my bed," she said. "It was embarrassing, in college having a baby rail built on your bed. I ended up crawling over it, and I fell again."
Gamaldo says people are injured all the time while sleepwalking, but the injuries are usually limited to bumps and bruises. It is possible to sustain serious injuries, though, if a subject leaves the home, tries to turn on an oven or a stove, or falls or trips hard.
•Myth: It's dangerous to wake a sleepwalker.
This is perhaps the most common myth about sleepwalking. Gamaldo advises assessing the situation — sometimes it's easier to lead a night wanderer back into his or her bed. "But in some cases, depending on what they're doing while sleepwalking, it may be safer to wake them up," she says.
Ohayon says the only danger in waking a sleepwalker is scaring the person. "If you do it violently, you can have some bad reaction," he says. "If he is awakening, though, it's not a problem. He'll just be surprised to see you there at his side."
•Myth: There's nothing you can do to prevent sleepwalking.
Runkel says she didn't realize what real sleep felt like until she began taking medicine to help curb her night wandering.
Gamaldo says clonazepam is universally considered the go-to medication for sleepwalkers. The drug works as a sedative that helps patients skip the phase of sleep during which sleepwalking usually occurs. While the drug works in extreme cases, in general, doctors suggest starting with environmental changes, like avoiding caffeine, not eating or exercising near bedtime, and making sure that the sleep environment is safe, comfortable and nonstimulating.