May 15, 2012 at 4:42 PM ET
Wake up, folks: There is no health risk in rousing a sleepwalker from their somnambulistic stroll. Well, no risk to them, anyway. You, on the other hand, might suffer a swift, roundhouse kick to the dome.
Long-repeated medical myths have held that if you forcibly snap a sleepwalker back to a wakeful state it will A) induce a state of shock or possibly even insanity, B) give them “lockjaw,” and, C), our personal favorite, cause their soul to become trapped outside their body. The truth matters now more than ever: On Monday, the Stanford University School of Medicine released new research estimating that 8.5 million U.S. adults (3.6 percent of the grownup population) went sleepwalking during the past year -- a far higher rate of nocturnal wanderers than previously thought by doctors.
“It’s not dangerous for the sleepwalker to wake him up,” said Dr. Mark R. Pressman, a psychologist and sleep specialist at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood, Pa. “You’re not going to do them any harm.”
But there are two potential pitfalls in attempting to yank them back to the conscious world. First, sleepwalkers take their short journeys with eyes open yet without turning on a key part of their brain -- the frontal lobe, a portion that controls social interaction. They are momentarily trapped in an altered, gray state that falls between alertness and full sleep, making them quite difficult to bring back to the real world, Pressman said.
“You just can’t talk to them and say ‘Hey!” and have them wake up,” Pressman said. “I’m not even sure where that myth began that you shouldn’t wake them. But the more you dig back (to try research that legend), the more you’ll find that sleepwalking once was thought to be mixed in with spirits and demonic possessions.”
Most sleepwalking episodes last only seconds or a few minutes, ending with the person either sitting or lying on the floor and returning sleep or eventually trudging back to bed.
“It’s very likely to go away on its own while the family is watching,” Pressman said.
You can try to verbally redirect a sleepwalker -- especially a child -- by standing a short distance away and speaking to them in short, easy commands: “Stop, turn around, go back to bed.” But don’t expect them to answer or even to recognize you, Pressman said. Those particular neurons are still snoozing. “Hopefully they turn around and go the other way.
“There’s really no reason to dive in and stop it unless the sleepwalker is about to climb out a window or fall down some stairs. If that’s the case, the family member doesn’t really have much choice,” he added.
If you do approach a sleepwalker -- especially if you physically block or grab one -- they may flash some "defensive aggressiveness,” Pressman said. “This is a very primitive response to what they see as a potential attacker. They may become violent.
“The first thing, obviously, is you have to protect them anyway you can. That’s the bottom line: safety. So you may have to be prepared to take a punch or kick.”
Just don’t expect your zombified loved one or housemate to offer an apology.