If you have ever seen narcolepsy portrayed in a TV show or movie, it was most likely portrayed comedically. The person with the disorder is often seen stumbling around or suddenly dropping their face into a plate of food at dinner snoring loudly. But, for those who suffer from narcolepsy, it’s not a laughing matter.
What is Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy affects both women and men equally. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, anywhere from 135,000 to 200,000 people in the US has narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder in which a person experiences extreme daytime drowsiness and falls asleep abruptly throughout the day. The Center for Narcolepsy at the Stanford School of Medicine states that narcolepsy is the next highest cause of extreme sleepiness after obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
A person who suffers from narcolepsy finds it difficult to remain awake for long periods, regardless of the amount of rest they may have had. It is highly disruptive and can cause serious problems in a person’s day to day life.
Someone with narcolepsy can unwittingly fall asleep during everyday activities such as eating, driving, typing, or talking. Sometimes when this happens, the person will experience “automatic behavior” and continue the task, only they are asleep. Once they wake, they have no recollection of what they did. Some people will experience muscle weakness, known as cataplexy, making them go suddenly limp and possibly rendering them unable to move. Others may experience vivid hallucinations and/or complete paralysis right before they fall asleep or upon waking up.
If narcolepsy is left untreated, it has the potential to impede on social, cognitive, and psychological functions. It can also interfere with social, academic and work activities.
Indications of narcolepsy typically begin developing in adolescence, worsening over the first several years, then continuing for life. However, it often goes undiagnosed for many years. Symptoms of narcolepsy include:
- Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS). As mentioned above, a person suffering from narcolepsy can fall asleep at any time without warning. This episode can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. Upon awakening, they may feel rested, but they will soon feel tired again. The extreme exhaustion may also cause a decreased ability to concentrate on tasks and function at your full potential. EDS is typically the first symptom to develop.
- Muscle Weakness. Another symptom of narcolepsy is a sudden deterioration of muscle tone or muscle weakness. A condition known as cataplexy. It is an uncontrollable symptom, often caused by strong emotions like excitement or fear.
Cataplexy can also cause slurred speech. These symptoms can last anywhere from a few seconds to minutes. Not every narcolepsy patient will experience cataplexy.
- Sleep Paralysis. Not everyone who gets sleep paralysis has narcolepsy, but it is a common symptom amongst those who do. Sleep paralysis renders a person unable to speak or move while they are falling asleep or as they’re waking up. Episodes of sleep paralysis do not last long, only a few seconds or minutes, but can feel quite terrifying. You can read more about sleep paralysis in our blog post, “What Causes Sleep Paralysis? What You Need to Know About Sleep Paralysis and Treatment Options.”
- Hallucinations. There are two types of hallucinations a person with narcolepsy may experience. If the hallucination occurs when falling asleep it is called a hypnagogic hallucination. If the hallucination occurs when waking up it is called a hypnopompic hallucination. It is very common for someone to feel like there is someone else in their room during these episodes. The hallucinations can be very realistic and quite scary, as you may not be completely asleep when dreaming begins so your dream is experienced as reality.
- Changes in REM sleep. REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep is the part of the sleep cycle in which most of our dreaming occurs. For people who suffer from narcolepsy, REM sleep can happen at any point in the day. When a person has narcolepsy, they will very quickly transition to the REM state, generally within 15 minutes of falling asleep.
Two Major Types of Narcolepsy
Two types of narcolepsy are most commonly diagnosed:
- Type 1 Narcolepsy: Once called narcolepsy with cataplexy, type 1 narcolepsy patients will have low levels of a brain hormone called hypocretin, or experience episodes of cataplexy. They will also experience excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS).
- Type 2 Narcolepsy: This form of narcolepsy used to be termed narcolepsy without cataplexy. When a person has this form of narcolepsy, they will experience EDS, but will not have episodes of cataplexy. Their symptoms tend to be less severe, and they have normal hypocretin levels.
Family Sleep Diagnostics Can Help
It’s plain to see that living with narcolepsy is not the big joke that movies and television make it out to be. Because there isn’t a definitive cure, narcolepsy is a serious, life altering condition that requires extensive life-long treatment. We can help.
If you or a loved one are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned here, we highly recommend you contact us. Having a sleep study done at Family Sleep Diagnostics will allow us to accurately determine if you suffer from narcolepsy, or perhaps another sleep disorder, and help set up the best treatment plan for you. Feel free to reach us at Family Sleep Diagnostics to set up an appointment or call us at (972) 714-0011.