What Causes Sleepwalking?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 December 2018
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There may be a variety of causes for sleepwalking, ranging from age to genetic factors. Some causes are entirely out of control of the sleepwalker. For example, young children are prone to sleepwalking, and most of them grow out of it eventually. Other factors can be controlled, and when walking in sleep is identified as a problem, many doctors focus on potential causes which can be identified and eliminated to help their patients sleep better. Sometimes, patients may be asked to stay in a sleep clinic so that doctors can learn more about their specific symptoms.

The term “sleepwalking” is a bit of misnomer, because it doesn't just involve walking. Patients may engage in a variety of activities which are more generally associated with the waking state, ranging from cooking to driving, and they are usually partially conscious, rather than fully unconscious. Sleepwalking can be quite dangerous in some cases, which is why identifying the cause is important.

Causes of this condition can be classified as genetic factors, environmental causes, and physical causes. People with relatives who suffer from somnambulism are much more likely to start sleepwalking themselves, as are people with a more general family history of sleep disorders. Environmental factors include sleep deprivation, poor sleeping conditions, and stress. Sometimes the presence of loud noises and strong smells can interfere with sleep, for example.


The physical causes of this condition can include: magnesium deficiency, the use of sedatives to sleep, alcohol intoxication, fever, post traumatic stress disorder, pregnancy, antihistamines, stimulants, and some illnesses. Conditions which cause a variety of sleep problems can sometimes lead to somnambulism, and sleepwalkers may also experience acid reflux and heart problems, which are linked to this condition, although they do not necessarily cause it. Some medications can also a person to walk in his or her sleep, in which case the labels will usually include a warning to alert patients to the risk.

As can be seen from the examples above, it is not always possible to eliminate a cause of sleepwalking from one's life. Practicing good sleep hygiene can significantly decrease the risk, however, by promoting a healthy night's rest. It's a good idea to keep bedrooms cool and adequately stocked with blankets, sheets, and pillows, and to reserve the bedroom for sleeping, rather than using it as a multi-purpose room. This can reduce other sleep-related disorders as well as general stress and exhaustion levels.


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