What causes sleep walking?

This question was asked in Metairie, Louisiana on 11/09/2012.
I am concerned about my sleepwalking and the things I do while I am sleepwalking. It mostly happens when I am extremely exhausted and sometimes when I'm not. Last night I open a container of Clorox cleaner and took a swig of it and instantly woke me up and I spit it out in the sink. Rarely do I wake up while on my sleepwalking journey's. I would like to know what is causing this and what is involved in finding out. I do not have insurance and I am on disability with a very limited income.

Doctors Answers (2)

J. Douglas Hudson, MD, DABSM
Answered on: 11/16/2012

Sleep walking is classified as a "parasomnia", involuntary motor activity while asleep. They can occur in any stage of sleep or as we transition from one stage to another. It represents a disconnect of nervous system function. In other words, we are not supposed to be so active while asleep. In fact, during REM sleep our body is essentially paralyzed except for preservation of breathing and our eye movements are moving rapidly, thus, the name Rapid Eye Movement Sleep. Dream enactment means that if you lose the ability to be paralyzed while in REM Sleep you have what is called REM Behavior Disorder. This disorder can represent some degenerative disorder of the brain such as Parkinson's Disease (PD). The dream enactment can begin years before symptoms of PD are obvious. It can be seen with excessive alcohol use or just happen for no known cause. On the other hand, most sleep walking occurs in Stage 3 (Non REM Sleep) when our muscles are not paralyzed. This often runs in families, like many medical disorders is often worse during times of stress and may be associated with other disorders such as narcolepsy. Most of the time it occurs for no known reason and most of the time it is not serious, often disappearing after childhood. In your case, however, it has persisted and is aggravated by the fatigue you mentioned. It is difficult to tell if your events represent sleep walking or REM Behavior Disorder (RBD). Sleep walking usually occurs before midnight and RBD usually occurs after midnight. There are many other questions which need to be addressed and will help determine the most likely diagnosis. There are medications which can help with both disorders.

Richard J. Schumann Jr., MD
Answered on: 11/12/2012

Sleepwalking can lead to situations that could certainly put your health and even your life in jeopardy. I would recommend if you have someone else in the house to secure your sleep area even to the point of locking the door and if possible stay with you until the episode is over to keep you out of harms way. Certain medications can be prescribe to minimize events like Klonopin for instance if this is a regular occurrence.