Somnambulism: What Causes Sleepwalking?

What Is Somnambulism?


Somnambulism is the medical terminology for sleepwalking. Sleepwalking refers to the act of walking or trying to perform regular activities while actually asleep. When someone suffers from sleepwalking, they may walk around their house at night while they are sleeping. They can attempt to perform household chores while they are asleep. They may even try to leave the house while they are still sleeping. During these episodes, they are not aware of those around them and can be very difficult to wake. The condition can occur as an isolated incident, or can be a recurrent problem for weeks, months, or years. Somnambulism is a common condition, with over 200,000 individuals newly diagnosed every year in the US.


The exact cause of somnambulism is unknown, but the condition can be exacerbated by the following factors:

  • Stress
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Family history of sleepwalking or sleep disorders
  • Sleep apnea
  • Certain medications
    • Antihistamines
    • Sedatives
  • Hypnotics


There is only one type of somnambulism.


  • Walking during sleep
  • Grabbing for things or gesturing while asleep
  • Trying to perform chores during sleep
  • Trying to leave the house during sleep
  • Trying to engage in sexual intercourse while sleeping
  • Showing no response when someone tries to wake you
  • Open, glassy eyes during sleep
  • Irritability when awake
  • Drowsiness when awake
  • Confusion or disorientation when awake



Your primary care physician will likely refer you to a sleep specialist if you have reported symptoms of somnambulism. There is no definitive diagnostic testing that can confirm the condition, so diagnosis relies mostly on reported symptoms. Your doctor may ask you or those you live with to keep a journal of your sleepwalking episodes. They may ask you to set up a recorder in your bedroom, to catch an episode of you sleepwalking. They may have you perform a sleep study, in which you stay at a clinic overnight and your sleeping behavior is observed by specialists.


There is no cure for somnambulism. For many people, the condition can resolve on its own over an unspecified period of time. Medications such as antipsychotics and serotonin uptake inhibitors can help keep patients in a more restful sleep and reduce episodes of sleepwalking. Patients are advised to make changes to their lifestyle to minimize injuries or harm that can occur during a sleepwalking episode. This includes having a bedroom on the first floor of a dwelling to avoid falling down stairs while sleepwalking. Dangerous items, such as knives, matches or guns should be kept locked up in the presence of someone with somnambulism to avoid potential harm to themselves and others.

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