Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder in which the brain has trouble regulating your sleep/wake cycles. If you have this condition, you experience periods of excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden, irresistible bouts of sleep. These ‘sleep attacks’ can occur at any time, seriously interfering with the activities of your daily life as you fall asleep unexpectedly at work, school, while you are having a conversation or even while driving a car.
Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) is a significant and common symptom of the disorder. EDS can cause persistent mental cloudiness, lack of energy, extreme exhaustion, and depressed mood. Some people with EDS experience memory problems that make life at school or work difficult. EDS is associated with involuntary sleep episodes, sometimes called ‘micro-sleeps,’ which last for just a few seconds.
In addition to sleep attacks and excessive sleepiness during the day, the sleep disorder may cause insomnia and dream-like hallucinations. It can also cause sleep paralysis, which is a disconcerting condition where you are awake, but unable to move when you first wake up or when you are falling asleep.
The condition may cause cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle tone that results in weakness and loss of voluntary muscle control. Cataplexy is often the first sign of the condition in about 10 percent of cases, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, often appearing within weeks or months of the onset of excessive daytime sleepiness.
This condition can cause you to wake up frequently or experience other sleep disorders. These problems result in poor sleep quality, which causes you to feel drowsy the next day.
Tests for Narcolepsy
The pulmonary specialists at O2 Pulmonary & Sleep Group can perform two tests to help diagnose this condition: the polysomnogram (PSG) and the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT).
The PSG is an overnight test that records your heart and respiratory rates, electrical activity in your brain and nerve activity in your muscles as you sleep. This test determines whether you are going through the proper sleep cycles at the proper times.
The MSLT is a daytime test that measures how well you fall asleep. It also evaluates sleep cycles and measures the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep. This test measures your heart and respiratory rates, records the nerve activity in your muscles, and pinpoints the occurrence of abnormal sleep rhythms.
While there is no cure, doctors can treat its symptoms well enough for you to live normally. Treatment can include medications, such as stimulants to increase alertness in the daytime and sleep-inducing agents at night.
Behavioral therapy also helps relieve symptoms. Therapy may help you discover that taking three or more scheduled naps reduces sleepiness, for example, or that you should avoid heavy meals or alcohol.