First Signs and Symptoms of Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that causes overwhelming sleepiness and difficulty staying awake. It affects an estimated 3 million people worldwide, but the majority of people with the condition are undiagnosed and untreated. Without treatment, the condition can cause serious difficulties and disruptions in an individual’s life.
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Potential narcolepsy causes include low levels of hypocretin, a chemical that helps the brain regulate sleep and wake cycles, and exposure to the H1N1 virus. However, in many cases, the specific narcolepsy causes are unknown.
There are several noticeable signs and symptoms that may indicate that someone has the disorder. Here are six of the most common early symptoms to watch out for:
1. Excessive Sleepiness
Excessive daytime sleepiness is the most obvious and most well-known symptom of the disorder. All people with the disorder experience this symptom, but the duration and severity of episodes of sleepiness may vary. Typically, periods of sleepiness last for under 30 minutes, and they often occur after experiencing strong emotions.
Daytime sleepiness may be accompanied by “brain fog” or mental cloudiness, difficulty focusing, and memory problems. These issues may seem very similar to depression, and people are often misdiagnosed.
2. Falling Asleep Suddenly
Because of the extreme daytime sleepiness, the condition often causes people to fall asleep suddenly in the middle of the day. People with this disorder can fall asleep without any warning, even if they’re in the middle of a conversation. However, it’s most common for people to fall asleep when they’re watching TV, sitting in a meeting, or doing anything else where they’re not active. Friends or family members might wake up their sleeping loved one after noticing them dozing off or snoring, but the individual may deny falling asleep at all.
Some people also experience automatic behavior after falling asleep in the middle of the day. They may continue to go through their normal daily activities even though they’re technically sleeping. When they wake up, they have no recollection of completing these activities.
3. Quick Entry to REM
If you notice that you begin dreaming immediately after falling asleep, you could be moving rapidly into REM sleep, which is a common symptom of this sleep disorder. People usually only experience REM after sleeping for an hour or more, but narcolepsy can cause people to move into REM sleep after just five minutes. It’s also common to be able to easily recall your dreams in great detail.
Some people experience hypnogagic hallucinations as they fall asleep and hypnopomipic hallucinations as they wake up. These are dreams that feel extremely vivid and often involve sensory input from the individual’s surrounding environment, including visuals, sounds, and smells.
5. Sleep Paralysis
Sleep paralysis prevents you from moving or speaking right after waking up. You remain fully conscious during sleep paralysis, and although it only lasts a couple minutes, it can be very frightening. During REM sleep, your body becomes temporarily paralyzed, and sleep paralysis is a similar occurrence but happens during consciousness.
6. Loss of Muscle Tone
Sudden loss of muscle tone, or cataplexy, is often triggered by strong emotions. It can cause your head to droop or your knees to buckle, and it can last for several minutes. Not everyone with this sleep disorder experiences cataplexy, but some people have multiple episodes every day.
If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to contact a doctor to be tested for this sleep disorder. You can undergo sleep tests for diagnosis, which will rule out other conditions like sleep apnea, a disorder that blocks the airways and causes snoring. If you’re diagnosed with narcolepsy, you and your doctor can determine the best treatment plan for you. Although there is no cure, the condition can be managed with medications and lifestyle changes.
Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness. Although many people are affected, most people don’t understand what the disorder truly is or how frustrating it can be.
Understanding statistics about this disorder can be helpful for educating the general public, and it can help those with the disorder see how they compare to others who suffer from it. Here are the latest statistics on narcolepsy:
About 3 million people worldwide are estimated to have this disorder, including about 215,000 in America. This is about 0.07 percent of the American population or one in every 2,000 people. However, these numbers are just estimates. Because so many people are misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, the actual number of people with this sleep disorder could be much higher.
This disorder affects men and women equally. However, some countries and regions experience much higher rates of this disorder than others. For example, the highest known occurrence is in the Japanese, with about one in 600 people being affected. The lowest known occurrence is in Israeli Jews, with about 1 in 500,000 people being affected.
This disorder is as common as MS and Parkinson’s and more common than cystic fibrosis, but it is not nearly as widely known or understood. Although millions of people worldwide suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness, there are many misconceptions about the disorder.
About 10 percent of patients also have a relative with the disorder, and the risk of having the disorder is anywhere from 10 to 40 times greater if a first degree relative has it. In many cases, the disorder is linked to genetics. About 25 percent of the population carries the gene that causes excessive daytime sleepiness, but only about one in 500 of those people will actually develop the disorder.
This disorder doesn’t just affect humans. Rodents and canines can have it as well. This was first discovered in the 1970s and has been helpful for studying potential treatments on rats and mice.
Symptoms can develop at any age, but they typically appear when the patient is between 15 and 30 years old. It’s very rare for signs of excessive daytime sleepiness to appear before adolescence, but it has happened before.
In most people, the signs of the disorder don’t worsen over time. They sometimes appear with age, but they rarely fully go away.
Excessive daytime sleepiness is the cardinal symptom of the disorder and affects 100 percent of patients. There are many other signs, though, including:
Between 10 and 25 percent of patients experience all of the features of the disorder.
The majority of people who experience cataplexy are triggered after a strong emotion, like laughter or anger.
This disorder has two types. With type 1, the patient experiences cataplexy or has low levels of hypocretin, a brain hormone. With type 2, the patient doesn’t experience cataplexy and has normal levels of hypocretin. Type 2 is usually less severe than type 1, but there are no known causes for type 2.
Because of excessive sleepiness and the risk of falling asleep, patients with this disorder experience 10 times as many traffic accidents as people without the disorder. Fortunately, those who treat their disorder with medication have the same accident rates as people without the disorder.
Diagnosis and Treatment
It’s estimated that only about 25 percent of those with the disorder are properly diagnosed and receive treatment. Of the population in America expected to have the disorder, this is about 54,000 people.
About 60 percent of patients are misdiagnosed. The most common misdiagnoses are depression, insomnia, and obstructive sleep apnea. Many of those who have the correct diagnosis had to wait years before being diagnosed. The average length of time between symptom onset and diagnosis is seven years.
According to a Unite Narcolepsy survey from 2013, about 95 percent of respondents have used one of these medications. About 70 percent use other prescriptions, and 80 percent use other treatments like diet changes and lifestyle modifications. Although there is no cure for excessive daytime sleepiness, the majority of patients are able to manage their symptoms with various treatments.