by Kimberly Allen, RN
Narcolepsy is defined as a “chronic meurologicaal disorder”. It is estimated tha narcolepsy affects approximately 200,00 Americans. However, it is significantly underdiagnosed as well as frequently misdiagnosed so most experts believe there are only around 50,000 diagnosed cases of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is as prevalent as multiple sclerosis, or parkinsons and even more prevalent than cystic fibrosis. However, because it is less well known it is frequently mistaken as depression or epilepsy. Narcolepsy can also be mistaken as a side effect of medications, recreational drug use or just plain laziness.
Narcolepsy affects both men and women. It typicall begins in adolescence or early adulthood. Then it’s usually around 15 years between when narcolepsy begins and when it is correctly diagnosed. Narcolepsy also tends to run in families.
Narcolepsy is caused by the inability of the brain to regulate the sleep-wake cycles normally. Researchers have discovered that people suffering from narcolepsy have low levels of a neurochemical called hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical in your brain that is crucial in regulating REM sleep and wakefullness. Researchers have been unable to determine exactly why there is less hypocretin in people with narcolepsy but believe it may be caused by an autoimmune reaction.
The symptoms of narcolepsy can appear with varying degrees of frequency and severity. However, the one symptom that is present in all people suffering from narcolepsy is excessive daytime sleepiness or EDS. People with narcolepsy can fall asleep anywhee at anytime without warning. You could suddenly fall asleep while working, or even when talking with friends. You could sleep anywhere from minutes to a half hour before waking up. You will usually feel refreshed when you wake up but you will fall asleep again eventually. EDS is usually the first symptom you notice as well as being the most difficult to deal with.
Approximately 75% of the people with narcolepsy experience a condition known as cataplexy, it is a sudden loss of muscle tone. Cataplexy is uncontrollable, it is also triggered by intense emotions like laughing, surprise or anger. It can cause physical changes that can range frome slurred speech to total weakness of most of your muscles. It can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Those suffering from narcolepsy with cataplexy may only experience 1 or 2 cataplexic episodes a year while others have several episodes a day. Approximately 30% of people with narcolepsy also experience hallucinations either when falling asleep or waking up. And 25% will also experience sleep paralysis, which is a condition where they are temporarily unable to9 move or speak when falling asleep or waking up. Though these episodes only last for a minute or two they can be very frightening.
There is no known cure for narcolepsy. However, there are certain lifestyle adjustments and medications that can help manage your symptoms. Your Dr may prescribe certain stimulants like modafinel to help you stay awake because it is less addictive than some of the older stimulants. Your Dr may also prescribe either SSRI’s or SNRI’s to supress REM sleep and relieve cataplexy, hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Certain lifestyle adjustments like adhereing to a sleep schedule, going to sleep and getting up at the same time every day including days off and weekends. Take short 20 minute naps at regular intervals throughout the day. It’s also important to exercise regularly and avoid alcohol and nicotine.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.