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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

By Bailey Shiffler, Special to The Baltimore Sun

7:08 PM EDT, August 8, 2012

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Megan Runkel of Ellicott City had sleepwalked several times a week for most of her life, but when she woke up in 2006 standing on her bed with her arm raised above her head stopping the blade of a whirling ceiling fan, sh e knew it was time to see a doctor.

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.

Runkel is currently not taking medication because she and her husband are trying to start a family. (Like other anticonvulsants, clonazepam can present a risk to pregnant women.) Since ceasing her doses, she says, she has reverted back to sleepwalking more than once a week. While she hasn't done anything too dangerous (mostly, she has moved objects around the house), she says she misses the true sleep she was getting while on medication.

"It's good to know that I will be able to sleep again one day, but for now it's very frustrating," she says. "It does affect your daily life: my attention level, my ability to focus and to get through my day and do the things that I want to do."

More findings from the study

Unless awakened, sleepwalkers do not remember instances of night wandering.

If you sleepwalked as a child, there is a higher chance you will have an episode as an adult.

Antidepressants, sleeping pills and certain other medications can increase risk of night wandering.

Sleepwalkers are likely to have a family history of sleepwalkers.

People with depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder are more likely to sleepwalk.

Men and women are equally likely to sleepwalk

Sources: Ohayon, Gimaldo, Prevalence and comorbidity of nocturnal wandering in the U.S. adult general population, National Institutes of Health

Sleepwalking by the numbers

2.5 million: Number of American adults who experience sleepwalking twice a month

8.5 million: Number of American adults who sleepwalk at least once a year

29.2: Percentage of the 19,000 American adults surveyed who said they'd been caught sleepwalking at some point in their lives

30: Percentage of sleepwalkers who have family members who sleepwalk.

3.5: Times more likely it is that people who suffer from depression will sleepwalk

4: Times more likely it is that people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder will sleepwalk

5-12: The age at which children start to sleepwalk.

Tips for parents

Having a child who sleepwalks is a challenge, but frequent episodes don't have to rule out sleepovers, summer camp or college.

Make it known: Don't ignore your child's sleepwalking and hope for the best. Let the sleepover hosts, camp counselors or college roommates know in advance that she or she is prone to night wandering.

Explain what to do if it happens: While waking a sleepwalker isn't harmful, doctors recommend simply steering him or her back to bed.

Request a safe place to sleep: This means no top bunks or lofted beds. Even if it requires some rearranging, be sure that your child is not forced to climb a ladder to get into bed.

Remove stimulants: Make sure your child knows to steer clear from caffeine or exercise right before bedtime.