Narcolepsy is a rare neurological disorder, characterised by excessive daytime sleepiness, hallucinations in the sleep-wake transition, sleep paralysis, and cataplexy (momentary loss of muscle control). Although it is normal for people to drop off during the day, for someone with narcolepsy the differentiation between sleep and wakefulness is not so easily defined.
Narcolepsy- so much more than dropping off
When people think of narcolepsy, they generally envisage somebody falling asleep uncontrollably at random moments. Although this is true in some cases, it is also a common misconception, as there are a number of other symptoms that could mean an individual is narcoleptic.
Narcolepsy symptoms- what to watch out for
Daytime drowsiness is, in fact the main symptom of narcolepsy. If an individual finds themselves struggling to stay awake, or extremely drowsy during the day, for more than three months in a row, it is recommended they speak to a specialist.
Contrary to popular belief, people with narcolepsy can also have trouble sleeping at night. This is due to their brain´s inability to control sleep and wakeful cycles. This may also give rise to hallucinations, as dreams encroach on the individual's wakeful reality whilst the transition is made from sleep to wakefulness or vice versa.
A sudden loss of muscle control, particularly in response to certain emotions such as laughter and anger, known as cataplexy, may occur at inopportune moments. If cataplexy and daytime sleepiness is not controlled, somebody with narcolepsy cannot drive or operate machinery.
Some individuals report waking up and finding themselves unable to move or talk. These moments can last anywhere between a few seconds to several minutes, but are terrifying all the same.
Poor metabolism is also associated with narcolepsy, often leading to patients putting on excess weight.
Due to the nature of the condition, if narcolepsy is not controlled properly it can have a disastrous effect on an individual’s life. Narcolepsy can often lead to social isolation and even depression.
Dealing with narcolepsy- how to take back control of your life
Although there is no known cure, there are a number of treatments for narcolepsy that aim to make life easier. These include:
- Educating family, friends, and acquaintances about narcolepsy and all it entails
- Trying to develop a regular sleep pattern at night (7-8 hours)
- Scheduled short naps to replenish energy levels
- Being flexible with social arrangements
- Learning to understand one's own needs, and what might trigger cataplexy or a “sleep attack”
- In some cases, medication prescribed by a GP or specialist may be necessary