The word narcolepsy comes from two Greek words, which in translation, roughly mean “seized by numbness.” Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder characterized by excessive daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep.
People with narcolepsy find it difficult to stay awake for long periods of time, and suffer disruptions to their day-to-day life. Though it is not fatal in itself, it can lead to fatal situations. For instance, if uncontrollable spells of daytime drowsiness take hold when one is driving, they can lead to a potentially fatal situation.
Narcolepsy can strike both men and women of all races. The disease can vary in severity. Some people with this disorder experience mild narcolepsy symptoms that include disturbed sleep, which is usually mild to moderate and doesn’t account for daytime sleep episodes, and periodic limb movement disorder (experienced by some patients), in which the leg muscles contract during sleep, awakening the patient.
The symptoms of narcolepsy may begin anytime, although they usually begin between the ages of 10 to 25. Though the causes of narcolepsy are unknown, recent studies have shown that Hypocretin-containing cells are missing in narcoleptic patients. The lack of two related brain chemicals called Hypocretin-1 and Hypocretin-2 cause Cataplexy Narcolepsy. The cause of narcolepsy without cataplexy is still unknown (Hypocretin molecules are also called Orexins).
Top five symptoms of narcolepsy:
1. Irresistible daytime sleepiness: The primary characteristics of narcolepsy are excessive drowsiness and an uncontrollable urge to sleep during the daytime. One can fall asleep at any moment, anywhere. The sleep may last for a few minutes or longer. After awakening from sleep, one may feel refreshed, but may fall asleep again. The sleep attacks may occur every three or four hours. Due to excessive drowsiness, there is an absence of mental alertness. One may not be able to recall their behavior during these episodes. An excessive, overwhelming urge to sleep is the first symptom to appear, and can wreak havoc on a person's life.
2. Sudden muscle weakness: This condition is also called Cataplexy. It is a sudden loss of muscle strength that immobilizes an individual during wakefulness. It causes many physical changes, ranging from broken, stutter-like, slurred speech to complete weakness of the whole body. The episodes may last for a few seconds to a few minutes. Cataplexy is usually brought on by intense emotions such as laughter, excitement, fear, anger, and surprise. For example, the head may droop precipitously forward, the jaw may become slack, or knees may buckle. The frequency of these episodes may vary — some people have numerous episodes daily, while others suffer one or two episodes a year.
3. Sleep paralysis: This refers to the temporary inability to move or speak when falling asleep or waking. People with Sleep Narcolepsy are aware of the condition and can recall what happened, even if they have no control over what’s happening. These sleep paralysis episodes are usually brief, lasting about one or two minutes, but they can be frightening. Sleep paralysis is akin to the temporary paralysis that occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It is during REM sleep that dreaming occurs. Temporary immobility prevents the individual from acting out dream sequences. However, not everyone with sleep paralysis has narcolepsy. Young adults can be prone to sleep paralysis.
4. Hallucinations: These hallucinations are called hypnologic hallucinations. They may occur when falling quickly into REM sleep or upon waking. When one begins dreaming they may be semi-awake, which makes dreams feel real. Abnormal REM sleep is one characteristic of narcolepsy. In fact, narcolepsy nullifies the boundaries between wakefulness, REM sleep, and non-REM sleep.
5. Microsleep and automatic behavior: In some cases, patients have “microsleep” episodes, in which they function but without conscious awareness. They may be working or driving, and turn off their awareness and function automatically for a few seconds. They may be walking to a particular destination and end up in a completely different place. They forget everything that might have happened during microsleep.
People with narcolepsy may have other sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, in which breathing starts and stops throughout the night, restless leg syndrome, and even insomnia.
Narcolepsy is not related to seizures, fainting, or sleep deprivation, which may cause abnormal sleep patterns. There is no cure for narcolepsy. Medications and lifestyle changes can help one cope with symptoms. Meaningful interpersonal relationships with family, friends, and employers help people better deal with narcolepsy.
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