Narcoleptics don't sleep more than the rest of us. It's just that they never know when they'll fall asleep. They can doze off over a dozen times a day.
And they never know what they'll be doing when the next round of uncontrollable unconciousness hits. It can happen while they're working, cooking, or talking to you. It can happen while they're driving a car.
Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder, which means there's a problem in the brain, affecting the individual's sleep-wake cycle. Anger, laughter, sexual excitement or just being surprised, can trigger sudden attacks of sleep.
Picture if you will the astonishing situations this can bring about, for the narcoleptic and for the people they are interacting with.
Narcolepsy is misunderstood and underdiagnosed, so many people with this condition don't know they have it. They just know they have a tendency to nod off.
They may hallucinate as they fall sleep or wake up, and they may experience paralysis at those times. They may also have short periods of cataplexy.
Mild cataplexy attacks are the most frequent. The head may drop, the jaw may become slack. The knees may go weak and the arms may become heavy and useless. Speech may become indistinct, or the narcoleptic may be unable to speak at all.
In more severe attacks, the individual may find themselves falling out of a chair, or hitting the ground from a standing position.
Narcolepsy typically emerges in adolescence, when irregular hours are commonplace. This fits all too well with the narcoleptic profile, with its times of irresistible drowsiness during the day, and interrupted sleep at night.
It is easy to conclude that what seems like insomnia is causing sleepiness throughout the day.
Some research suggests that narcolepsy is a dysfunction of the brain in regulating REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. For the normal sleeper, NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep is the first stage, followed later by REM sleep.
REM sleep is usually dreaming sleep, during which muscles are temporarily paralyzed so we don't act out our dreams. The narcoleptic usually hits REM sleep within the first few minutes.
Drug treatments for narcolepsy are available though their success is limited. Many narcoleptics find some relief by planning naps during their usual sleepiest times. Working around symptoms can make life more manageable.
If you think you may have narcolepsy, seeing a doctor about a diagnosis is a step in the right direction.
Center for Narcolepsy
Do you have a sleep disorder?
Narcolepsy Fact Sheet
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