Narcolepsy is a persistent brain disorder which is defined by not having control over one’s pattern of sleeping and waking. Those with the condition may experience periods during the day of severe tiredness that occur unexpectedly, along with interrupted sleep at night. The bouts may last in length from mere seconds to a number of minutes. Because of this, the condition may affect everyday life, such as functioning at school or work. The effects are particularly dangerous in situations such as driving a vehicle. The person may also experience paralysis, hallucinations or troubles with motor skills.
This sleep disorder occurs in similar levels in both genders. Signs usually begin early in life, such as in childhood or the teenage years. It is still possible for symptoms to occur later than this, though the disorder is often lifelong once it develops. Though narcolepsy is not especially rare, it may actually be more common than is perceived due to lack of diagnosis.
The most common symptom that occurs with narcolepsy is excessive daytime sleepiness. This can lead the sufferer to experience lessened energy, mental confusion, serious fatigue or depression. Difficulty with concentration or memory may also occur. Feelings of sleepiness often disappear for an hour or two after rest periods occur. Excessive daytime sleepiness may also be brought about due to other illnesses the individual is experiencing which can include depression, arthritis, heart failure, bacterial infections and more. Medications, along with substances such as nicotine and alcohol may also increase manifestations of the illness.
Another indication that may occur with this condition is cataplexy, in which one experiences a loss of muscle tone, leading to involuntary muscle responses and fatigue. These episodes will only occur in a waking state, though they can vary in severity and length. In extreme cases, the person will not be able to speak, move or open their eyes though they will remain conscious at the time. The symptoms may be brought on during profound emotional moments.
Hallucinations may also occur, often in conjunction with paralysis as the sufferer is falling asleep, is sleeping or is waking up. The mind’s images may be mistaken for reality and may cause significant fear as a result. In addition, sleep disturbances may occur quite frequently. Periods of sleep may be punctuated by sleep talking or sudden movements. During deep sleep the body organs and systems rest and rejuvenate to ensure proper functioning, including the metabolism. As such, some may put on weight as a result of the disorder and will need to maintain a more active lifestyle to combat weight gain.
There are a number of different factors that may lead to narcolepsy. For instance, the lack of a certain transmitter, hypocretin, which promotes wakefulness, may be responsible. Though those who suffer from the disorder may also have a relative with symptoms, there is not an especially strong hereditary link. The illness may be due to a genetic defect, though this is especially unusual. Although also quite uncommon, a traumatic brain injury may serve as the cause of the symptoms.
Diagnosis and treatment
Before a patient is diagnosed with narcolepsy, a thorough examination, as well as study of one’s medical history, will be necessary. Such tests will help to determine if there is a specific cause for the disorder. One test, the polysomnogram, assists in determining irregularities in the sleep schedule as one rests through the night. Heart rates, as well as nerve and brain activity, will be recorded. Any significant variations in one’s sleep patterns will also be noted.
Another such test is the multiple latency sleep test. This is a daytime test which measures the likelihood of the client falling asleep and how long it takes for a person to enter a sleeping state. Heart and nerve activity are also measured in this test. Sleep issues caused by other conditions, as well as any side effects of medication, will need to be ruled out in this process.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for narcolepsy. However, certain medications have proven to be helpful in managing symptoms. These prescriptions are intended to stimulate the individual so that they do not experience as much drowsiness and instead are more attentive. However, the patient will need to look out for certain side effects such as nervousness, anorexia, upset stomach or loss of motor control. The person may also build up a tolerance to medications, in which case larger doses will be needed. Antidepressant drugs may also be used to treat signs of cataplexy though these may cause side effects such as irregular heart rate or high blood pressure. Sodium oxybate, a powerful sedative, may also be prescribed, though it should be used with caution. By utilizing medication, as well as practicing healthy life habits, sufferers have the opportunity for improved well being.
Those with narcolepsy should avoid substances such as caffeine and engage in relaxing activities before bed to help ease them into sleep naturally. Having a usual sleep schedule that one adheres to as much as possible will also prove helpful. By taking steps to establish healthier sleep patterns, those with narcolepsy will be on their way to leading a more comfortable and positive lifestyle.
Contributed by Sovereign Health Writer, Ryan McMaster