The main symptom which characterizes narcolepsy is excessive daytime sleepiness, or EDS. This causes a person to fall asleep at inappropriate times or in inappropriate places, such as while at work or even while driving. Symptoms of narcolepsy persist, even after sufficient rest during nighttime sleep. Since this disorder is neurological it can affect the control of muscle function and cause temporary paralysis. Speech may be slurred and vision doubled, but hearing and awareness remains intact.
Symptoms of Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy causes symptoms that may vary by individual, but almost always leads to inappropriate sleeping. Short naps may occur many times throughout the day without warning or the ability to control them. Other symptoms may occur less frequently, intermittently over the course of the disorder, or not at all. Here is a brief list of potential symptoms experienced by people with narcolepsy:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness – inability to control frequent naps during which a person almost immediately reaches REM sleep
- Cataplexy – involuntary muscle weakness or temporary paralysis, possibly triggered by intense emotions such as fear or laughter
- Hallucinations – visions that occur just before sleep or just after awakening, and which are frequently frightening
- Sleep paralysis – temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or just after awakening
Causes of Narcolepsy
The exact cause for narcolepsy is unknown, but science has uncovered conditions that may increase susceptibility for certain people. Family history may play a significant role by passing along genes which contribute to abnormal brain chemical functioning and production. Chemicals which regulate REM sleep may be deficient in patients with narcolepsy, as research shows a patient with this disorder rapidly reaches a sleep state closely mimicking that of an unaffected persons REM sleep. Normal REM sleep takes at 30 minutes before beginning. Symptoms may also be caused by one or more forms of an auto-immune disease, such as Niemann-Pick disease or Prader-Willi syndrome.
If all symptoms are present for narcolepsy, diagnosis of the condition is relatively simple. However, a vast majority of people who suffer from this disorder only experience one or two of the symptoms simultaneously. Sleep specialists have the ability to perform tests which can lead to further evidence pointing to narcolepsy. The first of these tests is called a polysomnography. This test records brain waves and muscle functions during normal, nighttime sleep and can result in information to distinguish narcolepsy from any other sleep disorders which may cause EDS or other symptoms. Another test that may be performed is called the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) which allows a patient to fall asleep once every two hours during a normal day. The degree of EDS is measured, plus the amount of time it takes to reach REM sleep. This information is very beneficial for diagnosis as well.
Treatment of narcolepsy is often difficult as it may require trial and error to discover the best results. Complete control of symptoms may never be achieved, or may take a significant amount of time. Medication options are available, as well as suggestions for other forms of non-medical treatment. Following is a brief list of possible solutions for treating this disorder:
- Medication – central nervous system stimulants are the usual choice for treating this disorder. Non-stimulant drugs are available as well.
- Planned naps – Planning short naps at regular intervals can reduce the need for medication and alleviate excessive daytime sleepiness.
- Lifestyle changes – reducing stress, losing weight, increasing periods of exercise and decreasing use of caffeine and nicotine can alleviate symptoms of this disorder.
- Alternative remedies – many herbal and homeopathic remedies may assist the immune system and other bodily functions in regaining balance to prevent symptoms of narcolepsy