Sleeping disorders are fairly common in the Indian context, with about 5 per cent of the population suffering from one form of the disorder or the other. Whether you spend sleepless nights staring at the ceiling or find yourself falling asleep at odd times during the day, most sleep disorders can be traced to either developing motor skills as children or stress in adulthood.
But one of the most well-known (and misunderstood), yet uncommon of all these sleep disorders, is sleepwalking — or as it’s known in the medicine world, somnambulism, which falls under a category of abnormal movement based sleeping disorders called parasomnia. If you are a sleepwalker or know anyone who is, you also know how harmful the condition can be. Sleepwalkers are known to get out of bed, open doors and even walk out of their own homes.
Dr Deepika Sirineni, consultant neurologist at Apollo Hospitals, says that the condition usually occurs with children, but can prolong into adulthood too. “When the child is growing, their motor skills are developing. So even though the brain is resting, the body is still active. It usually occurs in the first half to one-third of the night.”
The disorder usually dissipates as the child grows, but sometimes it can happen with young adults as well, usually caused by stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Dr Jaydip Ray Chaudhuri, senior neuro physician at Yashoda Hospitals, adds, “Most of them have behavioural problems and personality disorders, but sometimes they may not have any other symptoms. And it can be of a genetic background, and can run in families.”
Understanding the condition
Both doctors, Sirineni and Chaudhuri, say that diagnosing the condition is something that needs to be done better. “Sometimes it is confused with seizures,” Sirineni says. “It is essential to get the EEG [electroencephalogram] and sleep study done, to know the exact diagnosis.”
Sleepwalking can have many effects on a person, which include sleep deprivation, loss of memory and emotional, and behavioural disturbances. Because of this, many misdiagnose or misunderstand the problem as a psychiatric one. “It’s not a mental disorder, it’s a neurological one,” says Chaudhuri, “People may have psychological or behavioural problems and it carries the stigma that it is a psychiatric disorder, but it isn’t.”
He also says it is sometimes confused with sleep terrors: “Sometimes it can get mixed with sleep terrors, which is also a disorder of arousal. The patient gets up, starts screaming, with palpitations, sweating. But somnambulists are quieter.”
When it comes to treating the condition, medication and restraint are the two most effective means. “It can be treated through medication and restraint,” says Dr. Chaudhuri, “If we can restrain them from walking out of the bedroom and keep the room safe so that the patient doesn’t get hurt, that usually works.”
But most of all, understanding and diagnosing the problem, is what keeps you safe, as he adds, “It’s not a mental disorder, it’s a neurological disorder. Treatment helps.”