What is narcolepsy?

Published: March 08, 2020

As many as 200,000 Americans suffer from narcolepsy, although fewer than 50,000 are diagnosed, according to Med TV.

Narcolepsy is a disorder affecting the area of the brain, which controls waking and sleeping. It disrupts normal sleeping patterns. The word originates from the Greek word “narke“, which translates as “numbness“, and is officially classed as a dyssomnia, or chronic sleep disorder.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom of narcolepsy is falling asleep sporadically and unexpectedly - these episodes are called “sleep attacks“. The sleep itself may be different: a narcolepsy sufferer typically experiences REM sleep a third quicker than the average person. Many sufferers also tend to feel excessively drowsy during the day.

According to the BBC and the NHS, around 4 out of 5 narcolepsy sufferers also experience cataplexy, which causes sudden loss of muscular control, often brought on by the feeling of strong emotions such as fear or excitement. Cataplexy may also cause slurred speech, weak legs or even total collapse – in rare cases paralysis has been reported. This can last from seconds to minutes and frequency varies from once or twice per year to several times a day.

Other symptoms of the condition include:

  • Disturbed sleep and agitation during the night
  • Hallucinations
  • Difficulty staying awake
  • Temporary muscle paralysis when falling asleep or waking up

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that symptoms of narcolepsy usually first appear between the ages of 10 and 25. Commonly arising in adolescence, in addition to puberty narcolepsy may follow common conditions such as measles or mumps; or even a traumatic event such as an accident. Unfortunately, because some of the symptoms resemble stereotypical teenage ’laziness’, many people remain undiagnosed until later on in life. When they are diagnosed it is through a comprehensive programme of sleep monitoring and brain wave analysis.

How is it treated?

Much as the symptoms vary from person to person so must the treatment. Tailored therapy may include a range of drugs from a group that stimulates the central nervous system or even antidepressants to counter-act the effects of cataplexy. Lifestyle changes such as scheduled naps throughout the day, eating healthily (including cutting out caffeine) and reducing stress levels may help to control – but not eradicate – narcolepsy.

Famous people with narcolepsy include Franck Bouyer, a French cyclist, and late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.

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Published March 08, 2020 by in Health Conditions
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One Response to “What is narcolepsy?”

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