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Narcolepsy: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Narcolepsy is characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep. Symptoms and treatment may vary. Read on to discover more about this sleep disorder.

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The number of sleep disorders is growing each year. With such a busy lifestyle, work stress, and less time for family and enjoyment, people get less and less sleep each day. Therefore, chronic problems are developed, and one of the most common ones is narcolepsy.

Narcolepsy is one of five major sleeping disorders that affect millions of people. This is a chronic sleep disorder characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep.

People who suffer from this disorder have problems staying awake for long periods, regardless of the circumstances.

Narcolepsy Introduction

As mentioned earlier, narcolepsy is a serious sleeping disorder that can disrupt every aspect of life. This condition can cause serious disruption is in your daily routine, habits, and overall life quality.

In some cases, narcolepsy can be followed by a sudden loss of muscle tone (cataplexy), which in most cases, can be triggered by strong emotion.

  • Narcolepsy that occurs with cataplexy is called type 1 narcolepsy.
  • Narcolepsy that occurs without cataplexy is known as type 2 narcolepsy.

The most important thing that’s there to be known about narcolepsy is that there is no cure. Luckily, medications and specific lifestyle changes can help you manage the symptoms.

Also, support from family, friends, and even employers and reachers can help you cope with narcolepsy.

Narcolepsy Symptoms

Narcolepsy is a lifelong problem. Interestingly, it doesn’t worsen as the personages. Over time, symptoms can even improve, but they will never disappear completely.

The most typical symptoms are excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and already mentioned cataplexy.

In REM sleep, we can dream, and we can even have muscle paralysis, which explains some of the symptoms of narcolepsy. Those symptoms may include:

1. Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

People who suffer from narcolepsy can fall asleep without warning. They can fall asleep anywhere and anytime.

For example, you can walk and talk with your friends in one moment, and in the second one, you may nod off, sleeping from a few minutes up to a half-hour.

Once you awake, you may feel fresh and full energy, but you may fall asleep shortly after waking up. You may also experience a lack of focus and decreased alertness throughout the day.

Excessive daytime sleepiness is usually the first symptom to appear, and its usually the most challenging one.

2. Sudden Loss Of Muscle Tone

This condition is called cataplexy (KAT-uh-plek-see), leading to a number of various physical changes. It can affect slurred speech, and it can lead to the complete weakness of most muscles. It usually can last up to a few minutes.

3. Cataplexy cannot be controlled and may be triggered by intense emotions, and usually the positive ones, such as an intense excitement or even laughter.

In some cases, cataplexy may appear due to anger, surprise, and fear. When you laugh, your knees may suddenly buckle.

Some people with narcolepsy experience only one or two cataplexy episodes a year, while others have numerous episodes daily – it’s highly individual. It’s important to note that not everyone with narcolepsy experiences cataplexy.

3. Sleep Paralysis

People with narcolepsy are more likely to experience a temporary inability to move or even speak while waking up or falling asleep. These episodes are usually brief and can last from few seconds to few minutes.

Although these episodes aren’t long, they can be frightening. You may be aware of the condition and have no difficulty recalling it later, even if you had no control over what was happening to you.

Sleep paralysis usually occurs during a period of sleep called rapid eye movement (rem) sleep.

It’s important to note that now everyone with sleep paralysis has narcolepsy, and many people without narcolepsy experience some episodes of sleep paralysis.

4. Changes In Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep

REM sleep occurs when dreaming happens. It can occur at any time of the day in people with narcolepsy.

People with narcolepsy reaches the REM phase quickly, usually in 15 minutes of falling asleep.

5. Hallucinations

Hallucinations are usually called hypnagogic hallucinations. In general, hallucinations happen when you fall asleep, while hypnopompic hallucinations occur upon waking.

Hallucinations may be very vivid and frightening, as well, because you may not be fully asleep when you begin dreaming, and you experience your dreams as reality.

Additional symptoms of narcolepsy include:

People with narcolepsy may have other sleep disorders as well. The most common condition in people with narcolepsy, next to narcolepsy, is obstructive sleep apnea – a condition in which breathing easily stops starts and stops throughout the night.

In some cases, restless leg syndrome many are present while others suffer from insomnia as well.

Some people with narcolepsy may experience automatic behavior during brief episodes of narcolepsy.

For example, you may fall asleep while performing an everyday task, such as writing, and you may continue performing that task while asleep. When you awaken, you may not remember what you did.

People with narcolepsy are very sleepy during the day, and can even experience some difficulties staying asleep at night.

In many, sleep may be disrupted by insomnia, periodic leg movements, already noticed sleep apnea, vivid dreaming, or merely by acting out while dreaming.

What Causes Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy may have several causes, and experts are still trying to figure out if something missing leads to this symptom.

They agree on one thing that it takes many factors to combine and cause problems in the brain and disturb REM sleep. Yet, scientists are every day closer to finding genes linked to the disorder.

Some experts believe that narcolepsy mats happen because your brain has a hard time making a hypocretin chemical. They’ve also found problems in parts of the brain involved in controlling REM sleep.

As expected, there are some risk factors for narcolepsy, including your age. Narcolepsy usually begins between the ages of 15 and 25, but may appear later in life and at any age.

So, if you have a family history of narcolepsy, your risk of getting it is 20 to 40 times higher.

Who’s Affected?

Overall, narcolepsy is a rare condition. It is so rare that no one knows for sure how many people are actually affected by this condition.

Men and women are equally affected by narcolepsy, although some studies claim that narcolepsy can be seen more often in men.

Since the first symptoms usually appear during adolescence, it’s important to have regular check-ups and take your child’s sleep needs and sleep challenges seriously. Narcolepsy is usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40.

Diagnosing Narcolepsy

Like with any other condition, its important to react fast. If you think that you have narcolepsy or a similar condition, talk to your doctor. Also, be honest about your sleeping habits and your sleeping routine.

Your doctor will ask you about symptoms, so if you list them, it will be easier for both of you, and you won’t forget to mention any symptoms.

Your diagnosis might involve:

  • Going through your medical history: its always important to reflect on previous conditions and symptoms, and to see if anything is running in the family
  • Physical exam: scannign your body for any regulation
  • Sleep records: your doctor may ask you to keep track of your symptoms. It may last even a few weeks
  • Polysomnogram (PSG): This test is usually done either in sleep labor in a sleep disorder clinic. It’s an overnight test that takes constant measurements while you’re asleep to record your sleep cycle problems. PSG is great because it can rule out other problems that might be causing your symptoms
  • Multiple sleep latency tests (MSLT): another test also performed at a special clinic or lab. The test takes place during the day to measure your tendency to fall asleep. It also aims to find out whether certain elements of REM sleep happen at unusual times during the day. Expect to take four or five short naps, usually 2 hours apart

Narcolepsy Treatment

As mentioned earlier, there is no cure for narcolepsy. However, certain treatments can help ease symptoms, and they include:

Lifestyle changes: Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Don’t have a regular nightcap and avoid heavy exercise before bedtime.

Also, think about your eating habits. Eat slower and eat smaller meals more often. Control your sleep schedule and try to be consistent.

Talk with your doctor about stimulants to treat sleepiness.

The doctor might prescribe you antidepressants to treat problems with REM sleep, or sodium oxybate (Xyrem) to treat cataplexy, and even pitolisant (Wakix) or solriamfetol (Sunosi) to help you stay awake for more extended periods.

The Bottom Line

Narcolepsy is a condition that will follow you your whole life. Luckily, you can learn how to live with it as long as you have regular check-ups and have a strong support system.

Thanks to medications and behavioral treatments, you can still lead a normal and productive life.

You should see your doctor as soon as you experience excessive daytime sleepiness that somehow disrupts your professional and personal life.

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