What Is Narcolepsy And How Do I Know If I Have It?

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You’ve probably heard of narcolepsy and you probably assume that it’s just like in the film ‘Moulin Rouge‘. The Narcoleptic Argentinian continuously drops asleep in a matter of seconds.

Well, it’s actually not too far off…

People suffer from narcolepsy in different ways, so let’s start at the beginning to explain this unusual condition.

What is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that’s characterized by excessive sleepiness, hallucinations, sleep paralysis and cataplexy. Cataplexy is the loss of muscle control. This can be a partial or complete loss of the muscle control and is triggered by strong emotions, such as laughter.

1 in 2000 people suffers from some form of narcolepsy. But it’s not as rare as you may think. Both men and women have just as equal a chance of developing the condition. And the symptoms pop up while in childhood or adolescence.

People who suffer from narcolepsy feel sleepy during the day and can fall asleep involuntarily. No, just because you didn’t get enough sleep last night does not make you narcoleptic. Anyone can feel sleepy during the day, but narcoleptics feel it to the extreme.

With narcolepsy, the boundaries between being awake and asleep are blurred. The characteristics of sleep can happen whilst a person is awake, resulting in them falling asleep randomly.

Narcoleptics can also experience hallucinations and paralysis as they fall asleep or wake up.

Why do narcoleptics fall asleep randomly?

Some people experience cataplexy with their narcolepsy. This is muscle paralysis that occurs during REM sleep, but it happens whilst awake instead. This results in sudden loss of muscle tone, leading to a slack jaw and weakness in the arms and legs.

Narcolepsy can be pretty frightening if this sudden paralysis happens unexpectedly; it can even result in injury from the fall. It can affect a sufferer’s work performance and be potentially dangerous if they drive. Concentration levels can be affected by the condition and make daily tasks and routines almost impossible.

What triggers Narcolepsy?

Research hasn’t managed to find a definitive indicator of what causes narcolepsy, but there are some common factors.

Hormonal changes that occur during puberty or the menopause can trigger narcolepsy, as can an inherited genetic fault. A sudden change in sleep patterns can confuse the brain, and major psychological stress has been suggested as a potential cause. Even infections such as swine flu, a streptococcal infection or having the flu vaccine, Pandemrix, have been linked.

Secondary narcolepsy is where it is induced by an underlying condition. This can include a head injury, brain tumour, multiple sclerosis (MS) or encephalitis. An underlying condition can damage the areas of the brain that produce hypocretin.

This is why if you suddenly develop narcolepsy you should always consult a doctor. There could be something underlying that needs addressing immediately.

Could I have Narcolepsy?

50% of people with narcolepsy are undiagnosed as the symptoms are different between people. But a simple way of checking if you have any of the symptoms is by answering the questions genuinely below…

Do you have an uncontrollable urge to sleep during the day-time, at inappropriate times?

Do your muscles suddenly weaken when you experience a strong emotion? For example, do your knees buckle if you laugh too much?

Do you struggle to stay asleep at night? Or struggle to actually get to sleep?

Do you feel unable to speak as you fall asleep or wake up?

Do you experience vivid nightmares whilst falling asleep or waking up?

If your answer is ‘yes’ to a number of these questions, then it may be worth speaking to a sleep specialist to get a proper diagnosis. You can try out this symptom screener online to measure your sleepiness.

Treatment for Narcolepsy

While narcoleptics can find no specific cure, a narcoleptic person’s symptoms can be managed.

In mild cases of narcolepsy, people can make changes to sleeping habits which can be the perfect cure. However, narcoleptic people require medication in more serious cases.

If your narcolepsy is mild then these simple changes to your sleep schedule could really help. Take regular naps, stick to a strict bedtime routine, avoid caffeine before bed, leave at least 2 hours between exercising and going to bed, and find ways to relax before going to bed.

Simple adjustments like this could help your symptoms reduce.

What to do if I’m narcoleptic?

If you discover that you’re narcoleptic, aside from consulting your doctor for advice, be sure to communicate with people about your condition.

Let your employers know about your condition so that they don’t mistake your sleepiness for laziness. You may even be able to design a napping schedule to keep you on top of your work.

If your child has narcolepsy, also be sure to let their teachers know about their condition to avoid embarrassing classroom situations.

Are you particularly struggling to cope with your condition? Search for your nearest narcolepsy support group. It can help to speak to other people who truly understand your condition, especially if you are struggling to cope.

If you struggle to fall asleep on an evening, why not try listening to one of our sleep stories over on our Sleepiest app. Listening to Sleepiest stories are proven to help struggling sleepers drift off quickly to a peaceful, deep sleep.