A person is going about their everyday activities, work, shopping, getting groceries, walking and talking, when they suddenly stop and fall to the ground. They have gone suddenly unconscious and come to a few moments later. It isn’t a seizure, they didn’t just die. They have narcolepsy.
Every day a scenario like this happens around the world when seemingly normal people suddenly fall into a sleep, regardless of what they are doing.
The effects may be harmless if the person is sitting on a couch, but the effects of the disease can be much more serious. If an attack were to happen when someone is walking down stairs, or crossing the street, they could seriously harm themselves.
What is Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is an autoimmune neurological sleep disorder. Over 3 million people around the world suffer from the disease, as it affects approximately 1 in every 2,000 people. The disease affects your body’s control over sleep and wakefulness, and those with the disease suffer from extreme sleepiness during the daytime as well as uncontrolled episodes of falling asleep.
Two types of narcolepsy exist:
• Narcolepsy with cataplexy combines extreme daytime sleepiness along with something called cataplexy. This is an attack that causes a sudden loss of muscle control and can lead to slurred speech, buckling knees and even complete paralysis in the most severe episodes. Often, these events are initiated by strong emotions.
• Narcolepsy without cataplexy carries the same symptoms of daytime sleepiness without the cataplexy. People with narcolepsy could sleep for several hours before waking up refreshed, yet feel tired a short time later. This can also be extremely disruptive to normal daily activities since the sufferer cannot go for long periods without sleep.
Interestingly, the total time that people with narcolepsy sleep is not much different than that of a normal person. Many people with narcolepsy have trouble sleeping through the night and experience awakenings that interrupt their regular sleep.
Just because you are usually tired during the day, does not mean that you have narcolepsy. There are other sleep disorders that cause similar sleepiness, including:
• Sleep Apnea – A person’s airway becomes obstructed, causing them to stop breathing and waking them during the night.
• Shift Work Sleep Disorder – A person’s work schedule interrupts the body’s normal rhythms and causes extreme difficulty sleeping at night.
• Restless Leg Syndroms – People feel the urge to move their legs to prevent unusual sensations. This can also affect arms, the torso or the head.
If you experience daytime sleepiness, you should consult your doctor and ask about taking part in a sleep study to determine the cause of your drowsiness.
What are the Causes and Symptoms?
What causes narcolepsy is not understood. Studies have been conducted and seem to indicate that the disease may be caused by a shortage of hypocretin, which controls wakefulness. Abnormalities have also been found in the parts of the brain which control REM sleep, and scientists believe that narcolepsy is caused by a combination of factors.
Symptoms of narcolepsy can be the following:
• Excessive Daytime Sleepiness – Sleepiness will cause problems with normal daily activities regardless of whether the person has had enough sleep. People who suffer from EDS have complained of a lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, memory lapses, depression and extreme exhaustion.
• Cataplexy – The muscles in the body suddenly lose their tone, which results in weakness and loss of muscle control. Symptoms of cataplexy can include slurred speech and total body collapse.
• Hallucinations – Experiences of hallucinations can be vivid and frightening. The effects are usually visual, but other senses can also be involved. When experienced while falling asleep, they are called hypnagogic hallucinations and when experienced while waking, they are called hypnopompic hallucinations.
• Sleep Paralysis – Sufferers have temporary paralysis and are unable to move or talk. Normally, this will last for a few seconds to a few minutes and a full recovery occurs after.
In order to diagnose whether or not you have narcolepsy, you need to speak with your physician. None of the symptoms above is specific to narcolepsy and a number of tests are needed to determine whether narcolepsy is a factor. Some of the tests include a sleep study and what’s known as a multiple sleep latency test to measure the tendancy to fall asleep.
How can it be Treated?
Unfortunately, narcolepsy has no cure, but the worst of the symptoms, such as cataplexy, can be controlled.
Drugs, such as Modafinil can reduce the effects of fatigue and can help you get a better rest at night. This can help you become more alert, overcoming the effects of the daytime sleepiness. It also has the effect of improving memory and, by extension, improving your mood. It also lacks the effects of coffee like “the jitters.”
Modafinil helps those with narcolepsy by increasing levels of hypothalamic histamine, which is the chemical responsible for wakefulness. The drug also helps with increased dopamine in the brain, which leads to better brain function and heightened alertness.
Other stimulant drugs have potentially risky side-effects like increased heart rate (tachycardia) or a rise in blood pressure. Using Modafinil shows no side-effects of this nature and, along with the lack of “jitters,” can be a safer alternative to other types of drugs.
Typically, a patient will take a 200 mg tablet of the drug each day, but dosage may vary depending on the person and what your doctor feels is needed. For those who suffer narcolepsy, Modafinil is an excellent choice to help you with your tiredness during the day.
If you suffer from narcolepsy, feel better in knowing that you aren’t the only one. There are many other people out there who experience the same symptoms and inconvenience that you do.
The good news is that, with testing and a doctor’s orders, the disease can be controlled. You can overcome your discomfort with exercise and with the help of drugs such as Modafinil. Contact your doctor and see how they can help you.