Narcolepsy is a rare disorder that causes people to suddenly fall asleep with little warning. This is because sufferers’ brains are unable to regulate sleeping and waking patterns in a normal fashion.
There are a number of symptoms of narcolepsy, although not everyone will experience the same ones. In addition, some sufferers experience regular symptoms, whilst others are less frequently affected. Symptoms include:
Excessive daytime sleepiness – This is usually the first sign of narcolepsy but is often just misjudged as people being lazy.
Sleep attacks – Sleep attacks are where people fall asleep suddenly and without any warning and are common in those with narcolepsy. They can occur at any time, and can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. In uncontrolled narcolepsy, sleep attacks can happen several times a day.
Cataplexy – Most narcolepsy sufferers will also experience cataplexy, which is sudden, temporary muscle weakness or a loss of muscle control. Symptoms are usually triggered by emotions, such as excitement, surprise or anger and include the jaw dropping, the head slumping down, slurred speech, legs collapsing and double vision.
Sleep paralysis – Some narcolepsy sufferers have episodes of sleep paralysis. This is a temporary inability to move or speak that occurs when waking up or falling asleep. Episodes last from a few seconds to several minutes.
Other symptoms – Narcolepsy can cause a range of other symptoms including hallucinations, memory problems, headaches, restless sleep, automatic behaviour and depression.
Narcolepsy is caused by a lack of a particular brain chemical called hypocretin (also known as orexin). Hypocretin is responsible for regulating wakefulness. It’s thought that a lack of hypocretin occurs because the immune system mistakenly attacks the cells that produce it. However, this doesn’t explain all cases of narcolepsy and it’s been suggested that other possible triggers may include hormonal changes, major psychological stress or an infection such as swine flu.
It’s estimated that narcolepsy affects around 25,000 people in the UK, with men and women affected equally. Symptoms often begin around adolescence but the condition is usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40. If you think you have narcolepsy, it’s important to see your GP who can carry out tests to rule out any other conditions that could be causing excessive sleepiness (such as sleep apnea, restless legs or an underactive thyroid). They can also refer you to a specialist in sleep disorders who can analyse your sleep patterns.
Although there’s no cure for narcolepsy you can make changes to improve your sleeping habits. If you can, taking frequent, brief naps during the day can really help manage excessive daytime drowsiness. It’s also important to keep to a strict bedtime routine by going to bed at the same time each night and making sure that your bed and mattress are comfortable and promoting good sleep. For those with particularly bad narcolepsy medication may also be prescribed.