Narcolepsy

By:    Published: February 15, 2012

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One of the most serious sleep disorders that affects people is narcolepsy. This particular condition can cause disruptions in a person’s life, and may even be dangerous in some situations. Although there is no cure for narcolepsy, it can be treated to help manage the symptoms that accompany this disorder.

Definition

Narcolepsy is a type of chronic sleep disorder of the nervous system that affects the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. This results in sudden attacks of sleep and overwhelming sleepiness during the day.

Contrary to what many believe, people with narcolepsy do not spend more time asleep over the course of a 24-hour period than the average person. This is partially due to frequently waking up during the night. It’s important to understand that narcolepsy doesn’t result in excessive sleeping, but rather a loss of control of the normal boundaries between the sleeping and waking states.

Symptoms

There are a number of symptoms that are associated with narcolepsy. Most begin between the ages of 10 and 25, but they can begin at anytime up until a person enters their 50s. Symptoms of narcolepsy are often more severe when they begin early in life. The main signs and symptoms of narcolepsy include:

  • Excessive daytime drowsiness: Narcolepsy’s most common symptom (and often the first to appear) is an overwhelming feeling of drowsiness during the day. Even after a short rest, the drowsiness eventually returns and the individual’s alertness decreases over the course of the day.
  • Sudden bouts of sleep: Individuals with narcolepsy are unable to control their need to sleep, resulting in them falling asleep without warning at any time. This can occur during the middle of a conversation, at work, during a meal, etc. The bout of sleep can last anywhere from a few seconds to a half-hour, after which the person feels awake and refreshed.
  • Sudden loss of muscle tone: Most people with narcolepsy experience episodes where their muscles suddenly weaken. This condition, which is called cataplexy, can result in physical changes like slurred speech, the head suddenly dropping or knees buckling. Individuals with narcolepsy may experience this several times a day or just a few times a year depending on their condition.
  • Hallucinations: When people with narcolepsy quickly transitions into a rapid eye movement (REM) sleep cycle, they may experience very vivid hallucinations called hypnagogic hallucinations.
  • Sleep paralysis: Some people with narcolepsy experience a condition called sleep paralysis. This occurs when a person is unable to move for a minute or two while falling asleep or while waking up. This temporary condition is common among those with narcolepsy, especially during their young adult years.
  • Other sleep disorders: Some people with narcolepsy also suffer from other sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia or restless legs syndrome.
  • Acting out dreams: People with narcolepsy sometimes act out their dreams while they are sleeping. This can result in kicking, screaming or flailing of the arms.
  • Automatic behaviors during sleep: Very short sleep attacks in narcoleptics are sometimes accompanied by automatic behaviors, meaning that they continue doing the activity they were involved in just before falling asleep even though they are already asleep. This could include activities like driving, typing or writing. When they wake up, they can’t remember what they did and they most likely did not perform the activity very well. With writing, for example, the individual may realize that they continued to write while asleep but the writing that occurred during the sleep attack just looks like scribbles.

Causes And Risk Factors

While it is unclear what the exact cause of narcolepsy is, medical experts do know that people with narcolepsy have low levels of hypocretin (a chemical in the brain that regulates wakefulness and REM sleep) in their spinal fluid. Doctors believe that this is caused by an autoimmune reaction. Other factors which may play a role in the development of narcolepsy include genetics, infection, exposure to toxins and stress.

There are few risk factors associated with narcolepsy.

  • The first is age, since narcolepsy often begins in childhood or adolescence.
  • Family history is also a risk factor since doctors have found that people with close family members with narcolepsy have a slightly higher chance of developing the disorder.
  • Lastly, those who have experienced significant stress, an infection, an immune-system dysfunction or exposure to toxins are at a higher risk for developing narcolepsy since these are thought to be possible causes of the condition.

Treatment

It’s important to seek help since narcolepsy can cause serious complications, such as injury, harm to others, emotional difficulties, social withdrawal, sexual dysfunction and problems at work or school. Individuals with narcolepsy have several treatment and home remedy options, including:

  • Medication: There are numerous medications that may be prescribed to manage the symptoms of narcolepsy, including stimulants, tricyclic antidepressants, sodium oxybate, and selective serotonin or norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors.
  • Exercise: Getting moderate exercise on a regular basis can help with narcolepsy, especially when done at least 4 or 5 hours before going to bed.
  • Avoiding nicotine and alcohol: Using these substances can worsen the symptoms of narcolepsy, especially when used at night.
  • Taking naps: Many people with narcolepsy find that taking short naps regularly throughout the day can help reduce sleepiness. (For more information on the benefits of napping, read Power Napping Benefits And Tips To Feel Refreshed.)
  • Sticking to a schedule: Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day can help reduce the symptoms of narcolepsy.

Those who experience daytime drowsiness that disrupts their personal or professional life should seek medical attention to find out if they have narcolepsy.

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