Sleepwalking, or Somnambulism, is a state in which the sleeping person rises from bed and unconsciously performs physical activities. This is something that at least 10% of us have all done at least once. However, it is more common in children, specifically from ages 4-12, peaking at about ages 11-12, and occurs more often in boys than in girls. In can occur in adults, but it is more rare (1 in 200), although if a person begins sleepwalking later in life, he or she will be likely to have the disorder for the rest of their life. Adult sleepwalking is more serious in that it is often more aggressive, and so has more potential for self-injury. Sleepwalkers are not allowed in the armed services of the United States. Severe stress, depression, or substance abuse can be leading causes for this disorder. Children tend to grow out of the somnambulism when the chemical activity and changing sleep patterns from puberty begins to affect the brains activity.
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Activities can range from mundane walking about or pushing objects or complex tasks such as driving or preparing meals and eating them. Some people forage for food at night and voraciously eat unusual snacks like cigarettes and butter or coffee ground sandwiches. The sleepwalker will have no memory of these events. Sleepwalking occurs during deep non-REM sleep. The sleeper goes through several stages of sleep during the night and the stages cycle over. Somnambulism can be dangerous because certain actions can damage the sleeper if they were to encounter an object or tumble down flights of stairs. In some instances, the sleepwalker will tackle a large object, flee randomly from an unseen horror, or exit through a window.
Several court cases in which the defendant pleaded not guilty to murder due to claims of sleepwalking. Some are King vs. Cogdon (smothered her only daughter because she thought spiders were attacking her. She was acquitted.), Regina vs. Parks (a man drove 14 miles to stab his mother five times and was acquitted.), and Arizona vs. Falater (guilty). This man admitted to killing his wife, only he had no memory of the brutal attack. He had stabbed her 44 times and then held her head under water in the swimming pool. The jury in this case found Falater guilty of First-degree intentional homicide. He may be facing the death penalty.
In treatment, Hypnosis has been effective for children and adults. Also, Benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety or sleep-inducing drugs) and anti-seizure medicines have been proven useful in the treatment of this disorder. A small dose of diazepam (Valium: sleeping aid and muscle relaxer) eliminates the episodes or considerably reduces them. In the home, preventive care is the best assistance for the chronic sleepwalker. Secure dangerous objects and close off access to stairwells. Remove tripping hazards from spaces the sleeper may occupy in his nocturnal travels. It may be wise to put alarms in the area to awaken the sleepwalker or a family member to help.
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