Narcolepsy (NAR-ko-lep-se) is a brain disorder that causes people to fall asleep suddenly, even when they are eating, talking, driving or engaging in any other type of activity. These “attacks” of sleep can last for a few seconds or a few minutes. Sometimes narcolepsy is associated with severe muscle weakness.
There are over 200,000 people in the United States that have Narcolepsy (about 1 in every 2,000), but only 50,000 (about 25% of the total) have been properly diagnosed and treated.
Since many illness have a symptom of extreme fatigue, it may take a physician’s years to properly diagnose narcolepsy. An accurate diagnosis is reached by overnight sleep study tests (such as a Polysomnogram and a Multiple Sleep Latency Test).
Types of Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy is categorized into two types: with and without cataplexy.
Cataplexy is described as sudden muscle weakness that is triggered by strong emotions (such as anger or a hearty bout of laughter). Individuals that have narcolepsy associated with cataplexy are more prone to temporary paralysis of all or specific muscle groups.
What Causes Narcolepsy?
A specific cause is not yet known, research is ongoing in this field of study. Currently, some scientists are leaning toward a brain chemical (hypocretin) deficiency.
Genetic predisposition is being studied as a cause linked to narcolepsy.
What Are the Symptoms of Narcolepsy?
Some of the more common symptoms of Narcolepsy include: muscle weakness (cataplexy); sudden sleep attacks, extreme daytime tiredness and difficulty sleeping at night. Less common symptoms can include hallucinations, lapses in memory and sleep paralysis.
Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) is reported to be the most common symptom among individuals that suffer from narcolepsy. Individuals describe it as a constant feeling of being in a “mental fog” (inability to think clearly and concentrate), and feeling exhausted all the time (even if they had a good night’s sleep).
Cataplexy is another symptom associated with narcolepsy, and it is basically is a sudden loss of muscle tone while they are awake. “Attacks” vary in severity and duration – it can be as minor as a dropped eyelid or as severe as a full body collapse. The distinguishing fact that separates cataplexy from seizures is that individuals experiencing cataplexy never lose* consciousness. Although cataplexy comes on quite suddenly, it is usually trigged by emotions such as laughter, fear, stress, and excitement.
Who is Affected?
Narcolepsy doesn’t discriminate among genders. Narcolepsy usually begins at a young age (between 7 and 20 years old), and it is a condition that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Available Treatments for Narcolepsy
Sadly, there is no cure* for narcolepsy, but prescription meds, lifestyle changes and support groups have been said to be helpful in managing symptoms.
Narcolepsy patients that take daily, short (20 minute) naps during the day, have said they feel more energized and awake the rest of the day.
Focusing on improving* the quality of sleep that a person gets during the night can win the battle against EDS and relieve symptoms of constant fatigue. Simple ways to enhance* the quality of a person’s sleep include:
- Avoid stimulants, like caffeine and alcohol, a few hours before your scheduled bedtime
- Quit smoking
- Try relaxing in a warm bath in the evening, before bedtime
- Keep the sleeping area cool and comfortable
Since intense feelings have been said to trigger some “attacks”, people need to learn to control their emotions.
When left undiagnosed and untreated, cataplexy and EDS can lead to serious injury and even death. An ordinary task, like walking down the stairs, becomes a hazard to individuals that battle sudden muscle loss and sleep attacks.
Auto accidents significantly increase* among people with undiagnosed and untreated symptoms of narcolepsy.