What Is the Difference Between Sleepwalking and Sleep Terrors?

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For many, sleep is one of their favorite parts of the day. Whether you like to curl up in bed with a good book in the evening or hide under your covers on an early Saturday morning, bed is a relaxing place for many. But, what do you do when you start to sleep walk or even develop sleep terrors? Dr. Daniel Combs, MD, at Banner - University Medical Center Tucson spoke to us about the difference between the two and when you should see a doctor if you develop a sleep disorder.

What is Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking occurs when a person sits up or gets out of bed. Generally, sleepwalkers have no idea they sleepwalk. Sleepwalkers often have blank expressions on their faces, are difficult to awaken and speak in gibberish – if at all. For sleepwalkers and their families, it can be a confusing experience?” We spoke to Dr. Combs about the disorders.

“Sleepwalking and night terrors are both situations where your brain partially wakes up from deep sleep. They are both types of Non-REM sleep parasomnias. Parasomnias are any type of unusual behavior that occurs during sleep. Sleep talking is the most common parasomnia, and almost everyone has had an episode of sleep-talking at some point in their lives.” Dr. Combs says. 

“Sleepwalking can occur in adults but is most common in school-age children. Parents may find their children either in the middle of sleepwalking, or may find them sleeping in a different room than they started in when they wake up in the morning.  Sleepwalking is usually benign, particularly if it is occurring less than twice a week. In rare cases where sleepwalking is occurring more often, it may be due to an underlying condition such as obstructive sleep apnea that is causing the person to wake up out of deep sleep more than is normal.” 

What are Sleep Terrors?

Also known as night terrors, sleep terrors are episodes of intense screaming, flailing and fear that occur while someone is still sleeping. Sleep terrors can occur for a few seconds up to a few minutes, but severe sleep terrors can occur for much longer. Similar to sleepwalking, sleep terrors can be caused by stress, sleep schedule interruptions, fever, and extreme tiredness. Many people who experience sleep terrors have memory of them in the morning.  

“Night terrors typically occur in toddlers and preschoolers. These events are typically terrifying to parents, who may be woken up by a screaming, inconsolable child, but children do not remember the events and wake up in the morning like nothing happened. Less severe night terrors may also be called confusional arousals. These events occur for the same reasons as sleepwalking and are also typically benign.  Children with frequent night terrors (>2/week) or that have them at an older age, may have an underlying cause of arousals from sleep such as obstructive sleep apnea.” says Dr. Combs.

When Should I See My Doctor?

You deserve to get a good night’s rest. If you have more than two sleepwalking or sleep terror episodes per week and/or have sleep terrors or sleepwalking experiences that have caused injury to yourself or others, set up an appointment with a sleep specialist at Banner to see if a sleep evaluation is the right option for you and develop a treatment plan.

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