Narcolepsy is a disorder that causes a person to have difficulty staying awake, even causing them to fall asleep suddenly during the course of the day. These sleep attacks can even occur after the person gets a good nights sleep. This pattern of falling asleep at random can affect a persons schooling, work, and social life.
People with narcolepsy experience a different sleep pattern than is normal, falling first into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep instead of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. This causes the line between sleeping and awake to be blurred, experiencing certain aspects of REM sleep while they are awake such as hallucinations, sleep paralysis, or cataplexy.
Who is at Risk?
Narcolepsy may affect 1 in every 2,000 people in the United States, most often occurring between the ages of 15 and 30 and affecting both men and women equally.
Factors that may increase the risk of developing narcolepsy include having:
- An immediate family member with narcolepsy.
- Certain thyroid disorders.
- Any autoimmune disorder.
What are the Signs?
The main symptom of narcolepsy is excessive daytime sleepiness with sleep attacks, which most often last for less than two minutes. Narcolepsy symptoms may also include:
- Sudden loss of muscle tone and control while awake (cataplexy).
- Sudden inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up (sleep paralysis).
- Vivid dreams while falling asleep or waking up (hallucinations).
- Difficulty staying asleep at night.
- Extreme exhaustion.
How is it Diagnosed?
Doctors will base their narcolepsy diagnosis on the symptoms of the patient, family history, physical exams, and test results. The doctor will examine you to see if you exhibit any signs of other possible causes of your symptoms, including infections, thyroid conditions, drug or alcohol use, or other medical disorders. Sometimes a sleep test is ordered, which may include a polysomnogram, multiple sleep latency test, or hypocretin test.
What is the Treatment?
While there is no cure, the symptoms may be relieved by way of lifestyle changes and medications.
Medications that may be prescribed to increase daytime alertness may include:
Lifestyle changes that may be implemented to alleviate narcolepsy symptoms may include:
- Engaging in relaxing activities before bedtime, such as a warm bath.
- Exercise regularly, but not within 3 hours of bedtime.
- Keep the bedroom quiet, comfortable, and free from distractions.
- Avoid caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, and certain over-the-counter and prescription medications before bedtime.
Excerpted and adapted from: National Institutes of Health
Reviewed by Francine Kaufman, MD. 4/08
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