Narcolepsy is a condition that causes sleepiness. The sleepiness experienced extends past typical fatigue a person feels in a day. It causes a person to feel consistently and severely tired during waking hours.
People with narcolepsy have to battle the intense urge to fall asleep. Sometimes this urge to fall asleep can be managed, but there are moments when affected people may have an urge to sleep in hazardous situations. Such situations can include operating machinery, driving, exercising, cooking or eating. The urge to sleep can also occur at inconvenient times of the day, like when working out socializing with friends.
Narcolepsy can have a negative impact on a person’s daily life. It is a chronic condition that a person needs to battle daily. The extreme exhaustion can affect a person’s relationships, ability to perform at work, and overall mental health. It is exhausting, and can also take a toll on the affected person’s body.
Symptoms Of Narcolepsy
It is not uncommon for a person to suffer from narcolepsy and not know it initially. Since narcolepsy causes extreme tiredness, it can sometimes be seen by others as laziness or simple fatigue. For an affected person, experiencing narcolepsy without knowing can make each day a major challenge. It can cause frustration and can negatively impact relationships. It can also affect a person’s relationships with teachers, professors and supervisors. This is why it is important to know how to identify the symptoms of the condition.
The following are symptoms of narcolepsy:
- Excessive sleepiness during waking hours
- Suddenly falling asleep without realizing
- Feeling fleeting relief and restfulness upon waking up
- Trouble focusing
Narcolepsy can also affect your REM sleep. REM sleep is one of the five stages of the sleep cycle. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement. Dreams typically occur during the stage of REM sleep. REM sleep is also thought to play an important part of learning and the storage of memories. REM sleep plays a critical role in memory and emotional regulation. Without restful REM sleep, a person may experience emotional reactivity and a loss of memories.
A person who suffers from narcolepsy may experience REM sleep during waking hours. This causes the brain to enter a dream-like state during waking hours. This can trigger uncomfortable and alarming symptoms, like:
- Sleep paralysis
A person with narcolepsy may or may not experience these more severe symptoms of narcolepsy. Those who do experience these symptoms struggle a great deal.
There are two types of narcolepsy. You can either have narcolepsy with cataplexy or narcolepsy without cataplexy. Those who suffer from narcolepsy with cataplexy will experience a sudden loss of muscle tone. This tends to cause symptoms like slurring and muscle weakness. This will last for about 1 to 3 minutes, and is often triggered by strong emotional upset or excitement.
Whether or not an affected person suffers from cataplexy, they are at risk of suffering from hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Both of these symptoms are distressing. Hallucinations may cause affected people to see people in the shadows who are not there. Sleep paralysis causes temporary paralysis as the brain exits the sleep cycle. This causes a person to be awake, but temporarily paralyzed and unable to move.
Causes of Narcolepsy
The condition of narcolepsy is thought to occur as a neurological condition. This means that the condition starts in the chemistry of the brain. A person is at higher risk of suffering from narcolepsy if they have a family member who also suffers from the condition. There may be a genetic component to the onset of the narcolepsy.
People who suffer from narcolepsy tend to begin noticing symptoms between adolescence and young adulthood. The condition is typically diagnosed after a physical exam and sleep exam. The affected person may also be asked to track sleep schedule and symptoms.
Cases of narcolepsy may require clinical testing. In such cases, an affected person may be asked to spend time in a sleep lab, where their sleep cycle and quality is carefully examined.
The following are popular exams to assess a condition of narcolepsy:
A polysomnogram is a sleep exam that takes place overnight. The affected person is asked to spend the night in a sleep lab to be monitored. While sleeping, brain waves are monitored. Eye movements and oxygen levels are tracked to rule out a possible condition of sleep apnea or other sleep-wake issue.
Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT)
A Polysomnogram is often followed up by the MSLT. The MSLT is a test that examines your quality of sleep and resulting sleepiness during waking hours. Your sleep quality may be examined by looking at how quickly you fall asleep, how quickly you enter REM sleep when napping, and your feeling of sleepiness after waking up.
Treatment Of Narcolepsy
At this time, there is no cure for narcolepsy. It is a chronic condition that needs to be managed by the affected person. Because it is difficult to manage, having support from family, friends, and coworkers can be a critical tool for coping.
Treatment for narcolepsy tends to consist of medication and lifestyle changes. A doctor may prescribe stimulants, SSRIs or antidepressant medication.
- Stimulants. Stimulant medication helps to stimulate the nervous system, which helps a person stay awake during waking hours.
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI). SSRI suppress REM sleep. This can be helpful for people who suffer from more severe symptoms. Such severe symptoms include cataplexy, hallucinations and sleep paralysis.
- Antidepressants. Tricyclic antidepressants are most helpful in cases of narcolepsy with cataplexy. They also help by managing REM sleep.
Sleep hygiene changes are also an important part of treating narcolepsy. The following can help with managing a condition of anxiety:
- Sticking to a sleep-wake schedule
- Taking scheduled power naps (lasting only 20 to 25 minutes)
- Getting regular physical exercise
It is also important to maintain a healthy diet and minimize the use of alcohol and other mood altering substances. Incorporating each of these lifestyle changes along with getting medical treatment can significantly improve a condition of narcolepsy.