Sleepwalking is a sleep disorder in which people walk or engage in other tasks while they are asleep. While the stereotypical image of a sleepwalker involves someone staggering down a hallway with his or her arms outstretched in the depths of the night, sleepwalkers usually move with their eyes open so they can see, and they are conscious of their actions, but not on a level which will cause them to remember what happened when they wake up. Because people don't remember the episodes, it may take some time for a person to realize that he or she is, in fact, a sleepwalker.
There are a number of potential causes for sleepwalking, including genetics, stress, and a variety of physiological factors. The phenomenon appears to occur during slow wave sleep, and it is more common in children, with the elderly being least likely to sleepwalk. During an episode, someone may engage in a variety of activities from walking around the house to driving a car.
This condition can be very dangerous, because sleepwalkers are not fully alert, and they can injure themselves while performing routine tasks. Driving while in slow wave sleep, for example, can result in an accident, and a sleepwalker may also eat or drink something inappropriate, or become injured with a knife or another tool.
It is usually easy to tell when someone is sleepwalking. Sleepwalkers often have eyes with a slightly glazed appearance, and they are slow to respond when asked questions. They may also behave erratically or nonsensically, and some sleepwalkers have been known to act violent during an episode. A sleepwalker will also not have any memory of the incident the next morning.
Contrary to popular belief, it is perfectly safe to wake sleepwalkers up, and in fact it is often advised, to reduce the risk of incurring injuries. Sometimes strenuous effort may be required to wake a sleepwalker, and the person may be disorientated, confused, or upset when they wake up because they have no memories of their activities. After being awakened, a sleepwalker can be put back to bed.
Repeated episodes can indicate the need for a trip to a doctor or sleep lab. A doctor can discuss the patient's history to determine why he or she is sleepwalking, and make recommendations which may reduce the frequency of episodes, or bring it to a stop altogether. In cases where the condition is caused by stress, for example, addressing the stress will usually resolve the sleep disturbance.