Narcolepsy is a neurological condition in which a person cannot control his or her ability to stay awake for extended periods of time throughout the day. Narcolepsy is a chronic disorder that equally affects both male and female, and typically strikes between the ages of 10 and 25. Narcolepsy is not a life-threatening illness in and of itself; however, engaging in certain activities may become dangerous, especially in light of the fact that episodes of sleepiness, also known as sleep attacks. often strike without warning.
Although the exact cause of narcolepsy is largely unknown, it has been speculated that genetics, as well as stress, and even exposure to certain environmental conditions, may play a role in the onset of this disorder. Experts also believe that narcolepsy may be caused by the reduction of hypocretin, a protein produced in the brain, although it is unclear why such a reduction would take place at all.
What Are The Symptoms Of Narcolepsy?
There are several symptoms associated with narcolepsy. One of the most common symptoms is the intermittent episodes of overwhelming sleepiness. A narcoleptic may develop an uncontrollable desire to sleep, followed by a short nap, or sleep attack. These episodes usually last for approximately 15 minutes, sometimes longer. Episodes of narcolepsy can occur at any time, whether it is after eating, during a conversation, and even while driving. Some people who have experienced these sleep attacks report that they often wake up feeling refreshed.
Hallucinations may occur during the period between sleep and wakefulness, and may involve such sensory factors as sight and hearing.
Sleep paralysis is another symptom of narcolepsy in which you are unable to move when you first awaken, and may also occur at the onset of drowsiness.
Cataplexy is a condition that is characterized by a sudden loss of muscle tone, usually occurring while a person is awake, and resulting in temporary paralysis. Episodes of strong emotion such as anger and laughter may bring on a bout of cataplexy. Most attacks of cataplexy may last for approximately 30 seconds, and can happen so quickly that they may be missed altogether. When an episode of cataplexy occurs, a person’s head may suddenly drop forward, his jaw may become flaccid, and his knees may buckle. In severe cases of cataplexy, a person may experience paralysis for as long as several minutes.
Contact your doctor or healthcare provider if you experience, or have ever experienced, any of the above-mentioned symptoms.
How Is Narcolepsy Treated?
While there is no cure for narcolepsy, the main objective for treatment is to control the symptoms. Naturally certain adjustments must be made in a person’s life in order to help cope with the emotional distress that often accompanies this condition. Furthermore, since a narcoleptic episode can happen at any time, and usually occurs without warning, it is vital to take notice o,f and even make record of, your personal narcoleptic patterns. Doing so will allow you to maintain a certain level of control in work and social situations. The following tips may help to avoid episodes of narcolepsy:
- Eat light or vegetarian meals during the day and avoid eating heavy meals prior to important engagements
- If circumstances allow, try to take a short naps following a meal
- Plan naps in order to control daytime sleep and to reduce the number of sleep attacks
- Inform teachers and supervisors about your condition so that you are not labeled as “lazy”
- Your doctor may prescribe a stimulant such as modafinil (brand name Provagil). Modafinil is generally a doctor’s first choice because it is less likely to be abused than other stimulants. This medicine is designed to help a person stay awake. Other possible prescribed stimulants may include dextroamphetamine and methylphenidae.
- Antidepressants may help reduce a person’s episodes of cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hallucinations. Selective Serotinin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) such as fluoxetine, paroxetine, sertraline, and venlafaxine are helpful, as well as certain antidepressants in the tricyclic family.
Sodium oxybate (Xyrem) may be prescribed to certain patients to be taken at night.
- A person with narcolepsy may be placed on certain driving restrictions. These restrictions vary from state to state.
Narcolepsy is a chronic condition. It is not a deadly illness, but can be dangerous if episodes of sleepiness occur while driving, operating heavy machinery, or other similar activities. Although there is no known cure, narcolepsy can usually be controlled by medication. Addressing other underlying sleep disorders can improve the symptoms of narcolepsy.