Primary Symptoms of narcolepsy
Narcolepsy has four primary symptoms. There are additional symptoms that may occur.
Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS) is a condition of narcolepsy. There may be sleep “attacks” that occur without warning. Narcoleptic people have persistent drowsiness. They may also have “microsleeps” which are moments of sleep that intrudes into a waking state.
Cataplexy is the sudden loss of voluntary muscle tone. The episodes can be relatively minor with sagging facial muscles and/or slurring of speech. Major episodes may result in complete body collapse. For some people, cataplexy resembles an epileptic seizure. Episodes can last for a few seconds or several minutes.
Hallucinations can be a problem for narcoleptic people when they starting to doze, fall asleep and/or awaken. While the hallucinations can be very vivid and frightening, they are not in themselves dangerous.
Paralysis is another symptom of narcolepsy. When waking up, narcoleptic people may be unable to move or talk for several seconds or minutes. While not dangerous, it can be very scary to be paralyzed even for such a brief time.
The cause of narcolepsy remains unknown. It is likely that narcolepsy involves multiple factors interacting to cause neurological dysfunction and sleep disturbances.
Additional Symptoms of narcolepsy
People with narcolepsy may have difficulty sleeping at night. This is one reason that narcolepsy has often be misdiagnosed as insomnia.
For people with narcolepsy, the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep begins almost as soon they fall asleep.
REM sleep is the period of the highest brain activity. In normal people, REM sleep only occurs after a person has reached a very deep sleep when the body is immobile. Having REM sleep occur suddenly after being awake can sometimes lead to automatic behavior.
This is when the body continues to move and do things while sleep has overtaken the brain. Automatic behavior may include talking, walking, and doing other things while asleep.
Research on narcolepsy
In government recent studies, there are indications that abnormal immune system processes may be involved in the causes of narcolepsy. U.S. government research is now trying to determine if drugs that suppress immune system processes can interrupt development of narcolepsy.
There is increasing awareness that narcolepsy develops during childhood and it may contribute to behavior disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A large US government epidemiological study is seeking to find how prevalent narcolepsy is in children aged two to 14 years who have ADHD.
While there’s no cure for narcolepsy, a dug called Modafinil was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1999 for the excessive daytime sleepiness.
The drug Xyrem was approved in July 2002 for treating cataplexy and in November 2005 for excessive daytime sleepiness. There are some safety concerns associated with Xyrem, so doctors are very conservative about prescribing it. Cataplexy can also be treated by two classes of antidepressants: tricyclics and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (like Prozac).
None of these medications are totally effective in preventing the symptoms of excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy in narcoleptic people. The medications also don’t help with hallucinations and paralysis symptoms of narcolepsy.
Most patients find that the narcolepsy get worse over 20 to 30 years after they first experience the first symptoms. If you are concerned that you may have narcolepsy, it’s very important that you see your doctor for diagnosis. Medication will help you cope with narcolepsy and function more normally.