Narcolepsy causes a person to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times. It can develop slowly over years or suddenly arise in the course of a few weeks. There are no specific cures for narcolepsy, it usually stays with you forever, although patients can learn to manage their symptoms to minimize the condition's impact on their daily lives. Sometimes the symptoms may ease as patients get older.
Luckily, it is a rare condition affecting approximately 1 in 2500 people. Bouts of sudden tiredness do not necessarily mean that you have narcolepsy. It can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms can be accredited to other conditions including an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), epilepsy, depression or sleep apnea.
Similar symptoms can also present as a result of head injury. Certain medications can also induce excessive daytime sleepiness. While it is normal for everybody to feel particularly sleepy at some point, and even fall asleep during a conversation or presentation, this does not necessarily involve any serious medical condition.
Periods of stress, lack of sleep or poor lifestyle choices can create a sense of sleepiness even for a long period of time. Frustration, lack of motivation, depression and other temporary or permanent mental states can also be linked to abnormal sleepiness.
Normal sleep takes the form of a regular pattern of Rapid Eye Movements (REM) and non-REM stages. Every 90 minutes or so during a normal full night's sleep, a sleeper experiences several minutes of REM sleep, during which dreaming occurs, before reverting to non-REM sleep.
However, with narcolepsy, the nocturnal sleep pattern is far more fragmented and usually involves many awakenings. When falling asleep during the day or night, people with narcolepsy usually rapidly enter REM sleep, leading to abnormal dream-like phenomena such as hallucinations.
Narcolepsy can have a considerable impact on patient's everyday life. Most patients fall asleep at inappropriate times throughout the day as well as sometimes experiencing all-encompassing sleepiness and fatigue.
This results in poor concentration and attention with effects on short term memory. At least part of the sleepiness may be secondary to disturbed night-time sleep. This makes it very difficult to perform at work or school with additional affects on short term memory. Other people can sometimes interpret their constant drowsiness as being lazy or rude.
About two thirds of narcolepsy sufferers also experience cataplexy. This is a sudden, temporary loss of muscular control or muscle weakness. This can result in the head slumping, the jaw dropping, slurred speech or the legs collapsing uncontrollably. It can also create double vision and make it difficult to focus.
Attacks of cataplexy are usually triggered by an emotion such as anger, laughter, fear, excitement, surprise or embarrassment and can last several minutes or just a few seconds. They can also occur repeatedly for up to one hour. Attacks can also be frequent, even several each day, or just one or two a year.
The affects of cataplexy on sufferers can be immense with some becoming emotionally and socially withdrawn as they attempt to control cataplexy by isolating themselves from emotional situations. Some patients with narcolepsy experience a temporary inability to speak or move when waking up or falling asleep. That's called sleep paralysis. It usually lasts for a few minutes but can continue for 30 minutes or so.
Hallucinations are also relatively common. Patients report hearing or seeing things that are not real, particularly when waking up or going to sleep. The most common hallucination is presence in the bedroom and they can be quite scary. Sleep is almost always restless punctuated by nightmares, waking up frequently and sometimes hot flushes. Patients have even been known to physically act out their dreams.
With all these associated symptoms it is perhaps not surprising that headaches can arise and the whole stress and strain of the condition often leads to depression. Whatever happens, remember help is at hand. Speak to your Doctor, especially if you are feeling low. He or she can advise you on how to minimize the effects narcolepsy has on your daily life.