Narcolepsy, which is a chronic neurological sleeping disorder, affections approximately one in every 4,000 Americans, and is growing in frequence among men and women in their thirties and forties. Narcolepsy is caused by by a glitch in the brain, which causes irregularities in sleeping patterns. People who suffer from narcolepsy will randomly fall asleep at inconvenient – and dangerous – times during the day, sometimes for only a few seconds, and sometimes for several minutes. The patient has no control over these episodes, and may have to give up driving and operating heavy machinery in case of a narcoleptic episode.
It is true that narcolepsy is fairly uncommon, but it strikes a sufficient number of people to interest doctors and scientists all over the world. There is still much that is unknown about narcolepsy, and there is no cure for those who suffer from it.
There are three main ways by which narcolepsy commonly manifests itself:
Excessive Daytime Sleepiness
This is the most common form of narcolepsy, and involves excessive fatigue and drowsiness throughout the waking hours. Patients may not fall completely into sleep, but will feel the urge throughout the day.
This is one of the scariest narcoleptic episodes, and involves a partial or complete relaxation of muscular tension. Cataplexy usually happens when the individual is tired and under an inordinate amount of emotional stress. Sometimes, the entire body will go limp, resulting in the individual’s collapsing to the floor, while it might also just be a relaxation of the facial muscles. The patient will remain aware the entire time, but will be unable to forcefully regain feeling in the muscles. Cataplectic episodes can range from just a few seconds to several minutes, and may result in a long sleep.
People who suffer from narcolepsy may experience strange, yet vivid, halucinations just before falling asleep or immediately upon waking. Although this is not common, it happens in many cases of extreme narcolepsy.
The Causes of Narcolepsy
Unforunately, medical personnel have not been able to pinpoint the exact cause of narcolepsy. It is very possible that there are multiple factors that might exist in some patients, while not in others.
What is generally accepted is that in people who suffer from narcolepsy, the pattern of brain waves and the gradual slowing of electrical activity that occurs when falling asleep happens much faster. In most narcoleptics, Hypocretin, which is a horomone that controls the neurons that fire during sleep, is much lower than in the average person. There are still many questions that remain unanswered concerning narcolepsy.
Treatment Options for Narcolepsy
There is no cure for narcolepsy, but there are a few treatment options that have proven effective in reducing the frequency of narcoleptic episodes.
First, short naps during the day – 30-45 minutes – may help to eliminate excessive daytime sleepiness. It is extrememy important that a narcolepsy sufferer maintain a regular sleeping regimen and fall asleep at approximately the same time every night.
During waking hours, amphetamines can help to keep patients alert and awake, though this does not completely eliminate the risk of a narcoleptic episode.