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What is Narcolepsy and How Is It Treated?

What is Narcolepsy and How Is It Treated?

We all feel tired sometimes, it can make day-to-day life extremely difficult. But it would be that much harder if you suffered from narcolepsy.

Narcolepsy.org.uk does a brilliant job of answering the question ‘what is narcolepsy?’. They state that:

‘Narcolepsy is a rare neurological condition that affects the brain's ability to regulate the normal sleep-wake cycle’

They go on to explain that though narcolepsy is often considered to be a sleep disorder, because it may disturb night time sleep or cause daytime naps, it is actually a disorder of the central nervous system. Unfortunately, currently there is no way to cure narcolepsy.

Symptoms of Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy can affect people in different ways, but there are some tell tale signs that tell you if you’re suffering from narcolepsy. The NHS website states that:

  • Not everyone with narcolepsy has the same symptoms.
  • Some people have symptoms regularly, while others are less frequently affected.
  • Symptoms may develop slowly over a number of years, or suddenly over the course of a few weeks.
  • Narcolepsy is usually a long-term (chronic) condition, although some of the symptoms may improve as you get older.

They reiterate that if you are experiencing any narcolepsy symptoms then you should see your GP immediately, especially if it is causing low mood. Your GP will be able to advise you on how to minimise the effect that narcolepsy has on your daily life.

Let’s take a look at some narcolepsy symptoms together.

1. Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

This tends to be the first sign of narcolepsy. We could argue it is the most recognisable and, unfortunately, the symptom that can have the biggest effect on daily life.

Not only does this mean needing to take more breaks, drowsiness is often misconstrued by people as rudeness making for difficult work and school life and relationships.

2. Sleep Attacks

This can be a more dangerous side effect of narcolepsy. Sleep attacks are when the sufferer falls asleep suddenly with no warning at any time.

Some sufferers of narcolepsy may only sleep for seconds - known as microsleeps others, however, may sleep for several minutes. If narcolepsy is not well controlled, these attacks may happen multiple times a day.

For those of you of a certain age, the 2001 film Rat Race puts a comedic slant on this very real condition and Rowan Atkinson’s character is often used as an example to illustrate the disruption narcolepsy can cause to daily life.

3. Sleep Paralysis

Regular readers will know, we have already talked about sleep paralysis and what it is on the Happy Beds blog, and it is unfortunately another side effect of narcolepsy. People who suffer with narcolepsy are more prone to experience sleep paralysis, the temporary inability to speak or move when waking up or falling asleep.

Sleep paralysis itself isn’t actually harmful, but it can be incredibly frightening for the sufferer.

4. Cataplexy

Not everyone with narcolepsy will suffer from cataplexy - the sudden temporary muscle weakness or total loss of muscular control. However, Narcolepsy.org.uk states that around 75% of all people who suffer with narcolepsy will also experience this condition.

The site talks about the different ways in which cataplexy can affect sufferers, stating,

“The loss of muscle tone that occurs may range from a just-perceptible weakening of the facial muscles through weakness at the knees, to total collapse on the floor. Speech may be slurred, and eyesight impaired (double vision, inability to focus) but hearing and awareness remain undisturbed.”

Cataplexy is usually triggered as an emotional response to something like laughter, meaning people who have the condition oftern limit their social interactions.

Other Symptoms

Other symptoms can include depression, due to social isolation as a result of the symptoms discussed, headaches and restless behaviour.

But, What Causes Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy causes are pretty clear and simple. It is caused by a lack of hypocretin, a chemical in the brain that regulates wakefulness. Lack of hypocretin is thought to be caused by “the immune system mistakenly attacking the cells that produce it or the receptors that allow it to work.” says the NHS.

Triggers for this can include huge hormonal changes, immense stress and infection.

So, How Can We Treat It?

Unfortunately, narcolepsy treatment is less definitive than diagnosis as there is no cure for the condition. However, there are a number of day-to-day life changes which you can implement to help better manage the condition and its effects.

Taking regular naps if and when they're needed is the first step. For the young or old, this should be quite straightforward, but this may be difficult to fit around work or school. In that case, we would suggest speaking to your local GP about creating a formalised sleep schedule. They can also prescribe medication, if required.

Within this schedule will be a regular bedtime. A routine is essential for regulating your circadian rhythm (your natural body clock). Furthermore, ensuring you have a comfortable and supportive mattress, as well as a calming environment conducive to sleep, will help make drifting off at bedtime that bit easier.

However, our best tip is... if you think you or someone you love may be suffering from narcolepsy, please speak to a medical professional!

If you have a diagnosis, what are your tips for managing the condition? Share your tips with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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