Sleepwalking is No Laughing Matter

Taking a flying leap through a glass window to evade a heat-seeking missile sounds like the province of a secret agent (or the actor portraying him), not a stand-up comedian. Yet that’s exactly what funnyman Mike Birbiglia did while staying at a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla Washington. Birbiglia wasn’t auditioning to replace Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible movies; he was—believe it or not—sleepwalking.

Birbiglia chronicles this accident in a comic monologue, which was excerpted on “This American Life” and now forms the basis of an autobiographical film called “Sleepwalk With Me.” But there was nothing funny about Birbiglia’s tumble from the second story window or the multiple stitches he received. Sleepwalking (or somnambulism) is defined within the parasomnia categorization of sleep disorders; these disorders are marked by abnormal behaviors, emotions and perceptions (like, say, being hounded by a missile) during sleep.

Steven Schonfeld, M.D.

“Sleepwalking is fairly uncommon,” says Steven Schonfeld, M.D., director of the Sinai Hospital Sleep Center. The disorder only occurs in about 4 or 5 percent of all adults, but when it does occur, it is, Schonfeld says, “a real risk. If someone sleepwalks, they’re putting themselves at risk.” He explains that parasomnias like sleepwalking can be sparked by other medical conditions or by stress. In “Sleepwalk With Me,” Birbiglia’s character, Matt Pandamiglio, suffers through a series of menial jobs while his stand-up career flounders and his long-term relationship falls apart.

Another possible explanation behind Birbiglia’s bizarre behavior (try saying that three times fast!) could be REM Behavior Disorder (RBD). According to the National Sleep Foundation’s website, “people who suffer from REM behavior disorder (RBD) act out their dreams. They physically move limbs or even get up and engage in activities associated with waking. Some talk, shout, scream, hit, punch, or fly out of bed while sleeping!”  However, the disorder commonly strikes people in their 50s (or older).

Schonfeld says that it’s important for anyone who may be exhibiting these unusual behaviors to carefully document what’s happening. “If possible,” he adds, “get a witness, like a partner or spouse.” He also advocates that they seek a sleep specialist, since sleep specialists can test for specific things. This kind of condition can be especially tricky to treat because sleepwalking isn’t always a consistent behavior. Care providers might be leery of using powerful medication to treat an occurrence that may happen once every month (or even every other month). “It’s not something you can predict,” Schonfeld explains. He’s quick to add that the patient’s safety is always of the utmost concern.

Even in less extreme cases, sleep studies can yield valuable information about the state of our health. “We encourage doctors to consider a patient’s sleep history as a part of their basic history,” Schonfeld says. Patients with cardiac or neurological issues are particularly vulnerable to sleep disturbances. Sleep apnea—which can be linked to cardiovascular woes like high blood pressure—is one of the most common conditions the Sleep Center treats.

Even if we’re not contending with a health issue like sleep apnea (and our dreams couldn’t pass for the first five minutes of a James Bond movie), there are still things we can do to ensure easier (and more effective) sleep. Schonfeld recommends that we establish a set bedtime and try to stick with it every day; he also counsels against eating heavy meals or drinking alcohol close to bedtime. Despite the conventional wisdom that “eight is great” when it comes to hours of sleep, Schonfeld says that everyone is different in terms of how many Z’s we need to face the day. “If you’re functional during the day, you’re doing okay.”

For more information about the Sinai Hospital Sleep Center, call 410-601-9523. To contact the Northwest Hospital Sleep Center, call 410-701-4559.

- Laura Bogart

To schedule an appointment with one of our highly trained physicians and find out why LifeBridge Health is Baltimore's premier health care organization, call 410-601-WELL.

Print this entry

1 Response

  1. An interesting, informative and helpful exposé on a complex and not-well-understood disorder. Thanks for this blog post.

Leave a comment

*

Facebook

Twitter

YouTube

LinkedId

Instagram

Follow Me on Instagram
  • Whether it’s guaranteeing same-day pick-up or providing free home and beside delivery for prescriptions, we are #appreciate all our #pharmacy professionals do to improve the health of people in our communities. Thank you. #WorldPharmacistDay

    lifebridgehealth: "Whether it’s guaranteeing same-day pick-up or providing free home and beside delivery for prescriptions, we are #appreciate all our #pharmacy professionals do to improve the health of people in our communities. Thank you. #WorldPharmacistDay"
    9
    0
  • Did you know #SinaiHospital used to be located in downtown #Baltimore? Pictured here are the last few remaining boxes that needed to be unpacked after the big move to our current location in 1959.

    lifebridgehealth: "Did you know #SinaiHospital used to be located in downtown #Baltimore? Pictured here are the last few remaining boxes that needed to be unpacked after the big move to our current location in 1959."
    8
    0
  • #WednesdayWisdsom This school year, remember to keep your child’s backpack load light. Backpacks shouldn’t weigh more than 10% of your child’s weight; heavy backpacks can cause neck and back pain, as well as poor posture. #BackpackAwarenessDay (Source: @AOTAinc)

    lifebridgehealth: "#WednesdayWisdsom This school year, remember to keep your child’s backpack load light. Backpacks shouldn’t weigh more than 10% of your child’s weight; heavy backpacks can cause neck and back pain, as well as poor posture. #BackpackAwarenessDay (Source: @AOTAinc)"
    6
    2
  • Meet the dedicated men of our #SinaiHospital Kujichagulia Center. This grant-funded program teaches life and job skills to young men between the ages of 19 and 25. #TeamLifeBridge

    lifebridgehealth: "Meet the dedicated men of our #SinaiHospital Kujichagulia Center. This grant-funded program teaches life and job skills to young men between the ages of 19 and 25. #TeamLifeBridge"
    22
    3
  • Thank you to everyone who came out for the Carroll Golf Classic in support of #CarrollHospital - we had a great time! #Golf #Support #Fundraiser #Healthcare #LifeBridgeHealth #Maryland

    lifebridgehealth: "Thank you to everyone who came out for the Carroll Golf Classic in support of #CarrollHospital - we had a great time! 
#Golf #Support #Fundraiser #Healthcare #LifeBridgeHealth #Maryland"
    17
    1
  • Congratulations to our #LifeBridgeHealth SuperStar employees of #August! These employees have been nominated by their coworkers for going above and beyond the call of duty, every day. We appreciate your handwork and commitment to #TeamLifeBridge! (From top left to bottom right: Sterling Kelly of #SinaiHospital, Eziaku Makis of #NorthwestHospital, Erin Ricker of #CarrollHospital, and Sharon Smith and Jenice Price of #Levindale)

    lifebridgehealth: "Congratulations to our #LifeBridgeHealth SuperStar employees of #August! These employees have been nominated by their coworkers for going above and beyond the call of duty, every day. We appreciate your handwork and commitment to #TeamLifeBridge! (From top left to bottom right: Sterling Kelly of #SinaiHospital, Eziaku Makis of #NorthwestHospital, Erin Ricker of #CarrollHospital, and Sharon Smith and Jenice Price of #Levindale)"
    22
    2
  • Though much has changed in the last 150 years at #SinaiHospital, our vision and mission have not. Every day, we provide compassionate, high-quality, cost-effective health care to all people, regardless of age, race, ethnicity or income. #TBT

    lifebridgehealth: "Though much has changed in the last 150 years at #SinaiHospital, our vision and mission have not. Every day, we provide compassionate, high-quality, cost-effective health care to all people, regardless of age, race, ethnicity or income. #TBT"
    15
    1
  • #WednesdayWisdsom A yearly physical exam by your family's pediatrician is an important part of your child's health care. Make an appointment this #BackToSchool season by calling 410.601.WELL (9355).

    lifebridgehealth: "#WednesdayWisdsom A yearly physical exam by your family's pediatrician is an important part of your child's health care. Make an appointment this #BackToSchool season by calling 410.601.WELL (9355)."
    20
    3
  • #DYK On average someone in the United States has a #stroke every 45 seconds. This week meet Faye Elliott, the quality nurse coordinator for #NorthwestHospital's stroke program. Faye plays a vital role in organizing and handling logistics and some clinical matters for an interdisciplinary group of medical experts who makes sure patients receive the best care possible. We are so appreciative of her dedication and commitment to #TeamLifeBridge.

    lifebridgehealth: "#DYK On average someone in the United States has a #stroke every 45 seconds. This week meet Faye Elliott, the quality nurse coordinator for #NorthwestHospital's stroke program. Faye plays a vital role in organizing and handling logistics and some clinical matters for an interdisciplinary group of medical experts who makes sure patients receive the best care possible. We are so appreciative of her dedication and commitment to #TeamLifeBridge."
    21
    5
  • On this anniversary of September 11, we honor and remember those who lost their lives in the attacks that forever changed our nation. #LifeBridgeHealth employees showed their respect during remembrance ceremonies at our facilities, including Sinai Hospital, Northwest Hospital, Carroll Hospital and Levindale #Remember911 #neverforget

    lifebridgehealth: "On this anniversary of September 11, we honor and remember those who lost their lives in the attacks that forever changed our nation.  #LifeBridgeHealth employees showed their respect during remembrance ceremonies at our facilities, including Sinai Hospital, Northwest Hospital, Carroll Hospital and Levindale #Remember911 #neverforget"
    28
    0