Narcolepsy is a type of neurological sleep disorder characterized by sleep paralysis, excessive sleepiness, hallucinations, and sometimes episodes of partial or complete loss of muscle control (cataplexy).
According to the National Sleep Foundation, both men and women can suffer from narcolepsy and roughly one in 2,000 individuals can get it. While narcolepsy typically presents itself between the ages of 15 and 25, you can develop it at any age.
Symptoms of Narcolepsy
When you suffer from narcolepsy, you experience loss of muscle control and sudden sleep attacks, which can frighten you, embarrass you, and even seriously disrupt and endanger your life. Everyday activities like cooking, walking, and driving can become dangerous. The severe daytime sleepiness you feel can put a strain on your school and work performance, as well as your intimate relationships.
The most common signs and symptoms of narcolepsy include:
- Extreme Daytime Sleepiness: You get a strong urge to sleep and/or you suffer a sleep attack (unable to control falling asleep) that can last from several seconds to several minutes. These attacks can occur while talking with someone, eating or in any other situation like driving. You wake to feel refreshed.
- Cataplexy: During attacks, you're unable to move or control your muscles. Strong emotions like anger or laughter can trigger cataplexy. Attacks can last up to 2 minutes and you're aware during your attack. While in an attack, your jaw drops, your head falls forward and your knees may buckle. You may even fall and remain paralyzed for up to a few minutes.
- Sleep Paralysis: You're unable to move your body when you wake up or before you fall asleep that can last up to 15 minutes.
- Hallucinations: You hear and see things that aren't there while waking up or falling asleep. You may feel under attack or afraid during hallucinations.
To better understand the symptoms of narcolepsy, it’s beneficial to understand what happens during your sleep cycle. During your typical sleep cycle, you initially enter into early sleep stages and gradually fall into deeper stages of sleep, followed by rapid eye movement (REM) sleep after around 90 minutes.
However, when you have narcolepsy, you fall immediately into REM sleep during your sleep cycle and sometimes during your waking hours. When you're in REM sleep, your body goes into muscle paralysis and you experience the dream state. This explains some of the above condition's symptoms.
To derive your narcolepsy diagnosis, your doctor takes an exhaustive medical history from you and performs a physical exam. A crucial part of your diagnosis is a sleep study to rule out other sleep disorders.
Although narcolepsy has no cure, you can treat symptoms with certain lifestyle changes and medications. It’s important to note that some individuals assume they have narcolepsy when they're consistently tired each day. However, there are a number of other sleep disorders that lead to daytime sleepiness; therefore it's important that you schedule a visit with your doctor to get a health check and to know for sure.