Narcolepsy and Symptoms

What is Narcolepsy and Symptoms of It?

Narcolepsy and Symptoms

Narcolepsy is a chronic and debilitating sleep disorder, which causes excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), cataplexy (or sudden loss of muscle tone), sleep paralysis on falling asleep or on waking, and visual and auditory hallucinations on dozing or waking. Fortunately, only 11 percent of sufferers experience all four symptoms.

It was recently discovered that people with this disorder have a sleep pattern that differs substantially from that of non-sufferers. The REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase normally occurs after about 90 minutes of regular sleep. In people with narcolepsy, however, REM generally happens within 10 minutes of falling asleep. As a result of this rapid onset of the REM, sufferers can experience hallucinations.

History of Narcolepsy

Who discovered Narcolepsy? It was first described way back in 1880 by Jean Baptiste Edouard Gelineau. He described narcolepsy and symptoms as having "brief periods of irresistible sleep, and falls, brought on by emotional stimuli."

What Causes Narcolepsy?

The cause of Narcolepsy is not known at this time. Research is still being done to find what factors may contribute to this disorder.

Recent research indicates that it involves an interaction between environmental factors (for example, abrupt change in sleep-wake schedule and/or severe personal stress) and specific genes.

Narcolepsy and Symptoms

The main characteristic of narcolepsy and symptoms is excessive and overwhelming daytime sleepiness, even after adequate nighttime sleep. A person with it is likely to become drowsy or to fall asleep, often at inappropriate times and places. Daytime sleep attacks may occur repeatedly in a single day. Drowsiness may persist for prolonged periods of time. In addition, nighttime sleep may be fragmented with frequent wakenings.

Most Common Narcolepsy Symptoms

Narcolepsy and symptoms can be put into one of the following categories:

  • Cataplexy: Sudden episodes of loss of muscle function, raning from slight weakness (such as limpness at the neck of knees, sagging facial muscles, or inability to speak clearly) to complete body collapse. Attacks may be triggered by sudden emotional reactions such as laughter, anger, ro fear and may last from a few seconds to several minutes. The person remains conscious throughout the episode.

  • Sleep Paralysis: temporary inability to talk or move when falling asleep or waking up. It may last a few seconds to minutes.

  • Hynagogic Hallucinations: vivid, often frightening, dream-like experiences that occur while dozing or falling asleep.

  • Disrupted nighttime sleep, in which the person wakes up many times during the night for a variety of often unexplained reasons, possibly dreams among them.
Daytime sleepiness, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations can also occur in people who do not have narcolepsy.

First Symptoms of Narcolepsy

By far, the first symptom to appear is excessive and overwhelming daytime sleepiness (EDS--Excessive Daytime Sleepiness). The other narcolepsy and symptoms may begin alone or in combination months or years after the onset of the daytime sleep attacks.

The irony of EDS is that even though it is the most common symptom, it is the most difficult to treat! The sensation of sleep for the sufferers is often irresistible, and people with narcolepsy and symptoms have been knonw to fall asleep while waling, eating, and in mid-conversation.

Attacks usually last around 30 minutes, after which a sufferer may awak feeling refreshed. But this sensation is generally shortlived, because within a couple of hours, another attack occurs.

Most people with this disorder feel drowsy when they wake in the mornings and persistent feeling of fatigue can last all day. Up to 80 percent experience decreased alertness lasting a few seconds or a few minutes at a time, which is potentially dangerous, depending on their activitiy.

There are wide variations in the narcolepsy and symptoms of development, severity, and order of appearance of cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations in individuals.

The excessive daytime sleepiness generally persists throughout life, but sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations may not.

Narcolepsy and symptoms, especially the excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy, often become severe enough to cause serious disruptions in a person's social, personal, and professional lives and severely limit activities.

Diagnosing Narcolepsy

It's relatively easy to diagnose when all the symptoms are present. But if the sleep attacks are isolated and cataplexy is mild or absent, diagnosis is more difficult.

Two tests that are commonly used in diagnosing are:

  • Polysomnogram

  • Multiple Sleep Latency Test

These tests are usually performed by a sleep specialist.

The polysomnogram involves continuous recording of sleep brain waves and a number of nerve and muscle functions during nighttime sleep. When tested, people with narcolepsy fall asleep rapidly, enter REM sleep early, and may awaken often during the night. The polysomnogram also helps to detect other possible sleep disorders tht could cause daytime sleepiness.

For the multiple sleep latency test, a person is given a chance to sleep very 2 hours during normal wake times. Observations are made of the time taken to reach various stages of sleep. This test measures the degree of daytime sleepiness and also detects how soon REM sleep begins. People with narcolepsy fall asleep rapidly and enter REM sleep early.

Unfortunately, this disorder is often misdianosed as fatigue, depression, or some other form of mental illness. Sufferers typcially experience symptoms for a decade or longer before the disorder is diagnosed.

Should You Be Checked for Narcolepsy Disease?

Are you concerned that you may have this disorder? You should be checked by a physician if any of these symptoms describe you:

  • You often feel excessively and overwhelmingly sleep during the day, even after having had a full night's sleep.

  • You fall asleep when you do not intend to, such as while having dinner, talking, driving, or working.

  • You collapse suddenly or your neck muscles feel too weak to hold up your head when you laugh or become angry, surprised, or shocked.

  • You find yourself briefly unable to talk or move while falling asleep or waking up.

Narcolepsy Statistics

Just how common is it? It's estimated that two to five persons in a thousand have this rather dibilitating narcolepsy disability.

Although it is estimated that it afflicts as many as 200,000 Americans, fewer than 50,000 are diagnosed. It is as widespread as Parkinson's Disease or Multiple Sclerosis and more prevalent than Cystic Fibrosis, but it is less well known. Narcolepsy is often mistaken for depression, epilepsy, or the side effects of medications.

Narcolepsy Facts By Age and Gender

It can occur in both men and women at any age, although its symptoms are usually first noticed in teenagers or young adults.

There is strong evidence that it may run in families; 8 to 12 percent of people with it have a close relative with the disease.

Living With Narcolepsy

Living with it can be difficult, and it has many emotional and practical effects. Individuals who are narcoleptics, along with their family, friends, and potential employers should know be educated with these facts.

Research on Narcolepsy

Click here to find out what is being done to better understand it.

Narcolepsy Treatment

Patients with this disorder have several treatment options available to them.

Famous People With Narcolepsy

Throughout time, many famous people have struggled with this sleep disorder:

  • Harriet Tubman - Abolitionist (1830-1913): As a child she was struck by an overseer. The blow fractured her skull and resulted in narcolepsy for the rest of her life. She rescued hundreds of slaves on the underground railroad.
  • Kurt Cobain (Singer)
  • Thomas Edison (Inventor)
  • Jimmy Kimmel (Host of TV show)
  • Louis Braille (Inventor of Braille)
  • Winston Churchill
  • Hank Aaron (Baseball Player)

Affordable Narcolepsy Health Insurance

Finding affordable health insurance when you have this sleep disorder can be a challenge! Here's where we need your help. If you suffer from it, and have found affordable health insurance, please share the name of the company with us. We'd love to add it to our site so that other people with this sleep disorder can benefit from your experience!

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Sources: Griffey; Swanson; Wolfson