Narcolepsy is a brain disorder characterized by daytime drowsiness, uncontrollable sleep. People suffer from disturbed sleep at night and have an abnormal sleep at daytime. This is observed in people having age 15-25 years. They may fall asleep while talking, working, or eating.
The word 'narcolepsy' is derived from the Greek word narke (numbness) and lepsis (attack or seizure). It is a chronic sleep disorder, wherein the affected individual experiences excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS).
This is a neurological disorder wherein the brain is unable to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Thus, these people suddenly fall asleep during the day. Such episodes may last for a few seconds or even few minutes. An extremely fatigued person may continue to sleep for more than an hour.
Scientists and researchers are still not sure as to what is narcolepsy caused by, but some of them believe that this condition might be genetic in nature. It is believed that the daytime sleepiness and abnormal REM sleep in people affected by this condition might occur in the event of abnormalities in the structure and function of hypocretin neurons.
These hypocretin neurons are located in the hypothalamus in the brain. The presence of autoimmune disease may also increase the chances of developing this condition.
The symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). This symptom is seen in people who do not get sufficient nighttime sleep. Besides disturbed sleep at night, these people experience symptoms such as laziness, a lack of concentration, reduced energy, memory lapses, and extreme exhaustion.
The person may feel drowsy for about 3 to 4 hours, and might end up taking plenty of short naps. These people may fall asleep at inappropriate times and places.
They might sleep in the middle of a conversation. They might fall asleep while reading, eating, watching TV, etc. The other symptoms include cataplexy, hallucinations, sleep paralysis, automatic behavior, vision problems, etc.
Cataplexy is a condition where one suddenly loses muscle tone and suffers from weakness and loss of voluntary muscle control. Some or all the muscles might get affected. One may suddenly drop something in his hands or develop slurred speech, etc. This symptom is seen in case of sudden and strong emotional reactions like laughter, anger, fear, and surprise.
The affected person could become delusional. These hallucinations are mostly visual and sometimes may involve other senses as well.
When the hallucinations occur with the onset of sleep, these are called hypnagogic hallucinations. Hallucinations that occur when the person is waking up are called hypnopompic hallucinations.
Sleep paralysis causes temporary inability to move or speak. This temporary paralysis occurs when the person is falling asleep or waking up.
This sleep paralysis takes place for a brief period like a few seconds to several minutes. Once the episode is over, the person becomes fully normal and active.
Automatic behavior has been observed in 60% to 80% of the narcoleptics. It means that the affected person continues to carry out certain activities or talks during the sleep episode. When the person wakes up, he/she has no memory of this strange behavior.
The aim is to use a combination of treatment options to control the symptoms. The sudden loss of control can make anyone feel depressed and withdrawn. Counseling can help people who are frightened, depressed, or confused about their condition. It helps such people reach out and get family support.
Behavioral changes are recommended to control the symptoms. The person is often asked to break down a large task into small tasks, and complete them one at a time.
Other changes include scheduling sleep periods, abstinence from certain substances (alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine), and avoiding activities that can be dangerous like driving or using heavy machinery. One needs to involve their co-workers and friends to step in, so as to help the person if he/she falls asleep.
If one experiences excessive sleepiness and often dozes off while working, medical help must be sought. Medical intervention will help you control the symptoms and protect yourself from possible injury by falling asleep suddenly.
Disclaimer: The information provided is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.