Health

A Fright at Night

How sleepwalking can turn deadly

Sleepwalking is an anomaly of the nighttime routine, more common in children than adults — and often seen as amusing but with real potential for danger, too.

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“Literally a week ago — I’m a light sleeper — I heard this, ‘OUCH!’” said Mike Linkletter of a middle-of-the-night episode with his 14-year-old son.

A 57-year investor from Laguna Beach, California, Linkletter said he found his son sitting on the hardwood floor in the middle of his room.

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“He looked up at me kind of clueless, and I said, ‘You’re sleepwalking!’”

The boy didn’t seem to be hurt, but trying to guide him back to bed proved to be a challenge.

“He was like the scarecrow,” Linkletter said, “flailing about, and he crashed to the ground again.” He finally got his son back into bed, where he fell fast asleep again.

Talking to his son the next morning, Linkletter realized how frightening sleepwalking could be. The boy didn’t recall the events of the night before but described another incident from a month earlier.

“He told me this happened in his dream: He got up, walked out of our house, walked a block down the street and rang the doorbell of a friend’s house,” Linkletter said.

The boy realized he’d actually acted out the dream, in his boxer shorts, when he woke up with his feet filthy from walking up and down the road.

“That’s totally scary. I don’t know what would happen if a car came, you know?” said the father.

Stories of young sleepwalkers wandering out of the house or falling out of windows are on the alarming end of the spectrum of what sleep experts classify as a “disorder of arousal” from non-REM sleep.

Studies show sleepwalking is more common in children and tends to wane during the teenage years, but plenty of cases carry on to adulthood. Contributing factors could include sleep deprivation, stress, mental disorders, heredity and alcohol and drugs, particularly sleep medication.

Researchers at Stanford University concluded in a 2012 study that sleepwalking among adults in the U.S. is more common than previously thought and higher than the rates of adults in Europe found previously. Findings in the study show between 3 to 4 percent of the adult population, or more than 8 million people, report one or more episodes of sleepwalking within the previous year. About 1 percent reported two or more sleepwalking episodes per month.

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When sleepwalking does persist into adulthood, the potential for danger increases. People have been known to leave the house, drive cars, and function under apparently normal conditions while part of their brain is completely unconscious.

Extreme cases include car accidents and criminal activity, even murder.

In one notorious 1987 incident, a 23-year old Canadian man rose from the chair he was sleeping in, drove 12 miles to his in-laws’ house, strangled and stabbed his father-in-law (who survived), and killed his mother-in-law by stabbing and beating her with a tire iron. The suspect then drove to a police station nearby and told officers he thought he had killed someone.

Because the man had a history of sleepwalking, had a good relationship with his in-laws with no motive to kill, and was oblivious to severe wounds he suffered during the attack, his attorneys convinced the jury he was unconscious during the episode.

More commonly, stories of adult sleepwalking unfold in more ordinary context, making it difficult to recognize what’s happening.

Naill Adler, a 39-year-old public relations specialist from Campbell, California, related a story about a former roommate.

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“He came out of his room talking, normal as can be. Then he asks, ‘So are my pants ready?’” Adler told LifeZette. “Then he opened the oven. It was a strange conversation that lasted 5-10 minutes.”

Adler only understood what had happened the next morning when he spoke to his roommate about the odd interaction.

“He said, ‘Well, it’s happened before, and it usually happens when I’m stressed,’” Adler recalled.

No one can say for sure what causes sleepwalking.

“There is no doubt an association between nocturnal wanderings and certain conditions, but we don’t know the direction of the causality,” said Dr. Maurice Ohayon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and lead researcher in the 2012 study. “Are the medical conditions provoking sleepwalking, or is it vice versa? Or perhaps it’s the treatment that is responsible.”

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