What is Narcolepsy?
Do you have unexplained daytime sleepiness? Do you have episodes of weakness triggered by humor or anger? Do you ever have episodes of paralysis or hallucinations, as you are falling asleep or waking-up? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then you might have Narcolepsy.
People with narcolepsy typically have one or more of the following symptoms: daytime sleepiness, cataplexy, sleep paralysis, hallucinations upon falling asleep or waking-up, and poor quality sleep. Except for cataplexy, all of these problems can occur in other sleep disorders like Sleep Apnea.
Cataplexy is unique to narcolepsy. It is a sudden, unexplained weakness or paralysis triggered by emotions. There is no loss of consciousness and these events usually only last for several seconds to a few minutes.
Who Gets Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy occurs in approximately 1 in 2000 people in the general population. It usually occurs spontaneously, but it can also be inherited. Nobody knows why it occurs, but in 2000 it was discovered that people with narcolepsy with cataplexy are missing (or have very little of) a neurotransmitter called hypocretin.
It usually starts in adolescents or early adulthood. Often, it begins with unexplained daytime sleepiness. Later the other common narcolepsy symptoms, as described above, may develop.
I Think I Might Have Narcolepsy, How Do I Find Out If I Have It?
Make an appointment with your primary care physician, or if your insurance allows it, go straight to a sleep specialist. If your physician thinks you might have narcolepsy, then he/she should refer you to a sleep specialist for further evaluation.
How Is Narcolepsy Treated?
Narcolepsy is usually treated with a combination of lifestyle modification and medications. It is important to realize that even with optimal treatment, most people with narcolepsy continue to have a degree of daytime sleepiness.
Behavioral modification involves short naps and proper choice of employment. People with narcolepsy generally do better with jobs that are mentally and physically stimulating rather than sedentary in nature. Employers should be notified that people with narcolepsy may need to take short naps during the course of a workday.
There are two types of medication for narcolepsy: those for daytime sleepiness and those for cataplexy. Medications that help with daytime sleepiness include amphetamines and the newer wake promoting agents like Provigil®. Medications that help with cataplexy are the antidepressants, like Prozac® and Effexor®. A medication called Xyrem® helps with both daytime sleepiness and cataplexy. Ask your doctor about what option is right for you.