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Narcolepsy FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about Narcolepsy

At Sleep Dynamics, we help New Jersey residents who suffer from sleep disorders Keep reading for answers to some of our most frequently asked questions regarding narcolepsy.

WHAT IS NARCOLEPSY?

Narcolepsy, or hypersomnia, is a neurological sleep disorder characterized by excessive sleepiness, sleep paralysis, sleep attacks, hallucinations, and sometimes sudden loss of muscle control. This sleeping disorder affects around 1 in 2,000 people in the United States and is often overlooked, wrongly diagnosed, and untreated due to the fact that many people are simply unaware that they have it. Since this is an underdiagnosed disorder, it is thought that the number of people affected could be much higher than estimated.

Narcolepsy blurs the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness, causing conditions including extreme fatigue during the day, vivid dream-like hallucinations, and paralysis while falling asleep or waking up. People with narcolepsy will often experience fragmented nighttime sleep but will feel well-rested after waking. The onset of the disorder typically occurs between the ages of 10 and 30, though it can happen at any age. Though narcolepsy is a lifelong problem, it does not usually worsen as the person ages.

HOW IS SLEEP DIFFERENT FOR PEOPLE WITH NARCOLEPSY?

In a normal sleep cycle, a person without narcolepsy will experience the early stages of sleep followed by a deeper sleep for about 90 minutes before rapid eye movement (REM) sleep finally occurs.

People who suffer from narcolepsy will experience REM sleep 15 minutes into their sleep cycle and even intermittently during the hours they are awake. REM sleep is the stage of sleep during which dreams and muscle paralysis occur.

WHAT CAUSES NARCOLEPSY?

The definite cause of narcolepsy is widely unknown. However, progress has been made to identify genes associated with the sleeping disorder.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF NARCOLEPSY?

The most common symptoms of narcolepsy include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) – All individuals with narcolepsy have EDS, which is often the most apparent symptom. It is characterized by persistent sleepiness, regardless of how much sleep an individual gets at night. Tiredness, as it pertains to narcolepsy, is more like a “sleep attack,” as an overwhelming sense of sleepiness comes on very quickly.
  • Cataplexy – This is a sudden loss of muscle tone while a person is awake, leading to weakness and a loss of voluntary muscle control. Cataplexy is often triggered by sudden, strong emotions such as laughter, fear, anger, stress, or excitement. The symptoms may appear weeks or even years after the onset of excessive daytime sleepiness. Some individuals may only have one or two attacks in a lifetime, while others may experience multiple attacks in a single day.
  • Sleep paralysis – Sleep paralysis is the temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up. Sleep paralysis is similar to cataplexy, except sleep paralysis occurs at the edges of sleep.
  • Hallucinations – Very vivid images can accompany sleep paralysis and usually occur when a person is falling asleep or waking up.  In most cases, the content is mainly visual, but any of the other senses can be involved as well.

IS NARCOLEPSY MORE COMMON IN MEN OR WOMEN?

Narcolepsy affects both men and women but seems to be a bit more common in men. This may be because women are more likely to receive a delay in diagnoses. 

WHAT TRIGGERS NARCOLEPSY?

There are a plethora of factors that may increase a person’s risk of narcolepsy. Some of the more commonly understood triggers of narcolepsy include:

  • Hormone changes
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Major psychological stress
  • A serious infection
  • Brain injuries
  • A sudden change in sleep patterns
  • Inherited genetic fault

WHAT IS CATAPLEXY?

Cataplexy is a sudden loss of muscle control that causes a person to collapse, slump over, or slur words with little to no warning. It is common for people who have narcolepsy with cataplexy to suddenly lose control of the muscles in their face, arms, torso, and legs. A person is awake during cataplexy, and the episode can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Cataplexy is often triggered by strong emotions, such as anger, laughter, stress, or excitement.

WHAT IS EXCESSIVE DAYTIME SLEEPINESS?

Excessive daytime sleepiness is often characterized by persistent tiredness and an overall lack of energy, even after a restful night of sleep. Though it can be a symptom in many disorders, it is a prevalent symptom of narcolepsy.

WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF NARCOLEPSY?

There are many ways this neurological disorder can affect a person’s day-to-day life. Some of the most common side effects of narcolepsy include:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Poor performance in school
  • Poor performance at work
  • Impaired ability to participate in exercise or sports
  • Social difficulties
  • Trouble caring for one’s self, family, or household
  • Driving limitations
  • A propensity for isolation
  • Decreased quality of life

IS THERE A CURE FOR NARCOLEPSY?

People with narcolepsy may have other sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea — a condition in which breathing starts and stops throughout the night — restless legs syndrome and even insomnia. It is very important to be diagnosed by a professional. There is currently not a cure for narcolepsy. However, there are viable treatment options and lifestyle changes one suffering from this sleep disorder can implement in his or her day-to-day routine to significantly improve adverse symptoms.

HOW IS NARCOLEPSY TREATED?

Medications

Medications for narcolepsy include:

  • Stimulants – Drugs that stimulate the central nervous system are the primary treatment to help people with narcolepsy stay awake during the day. Doctors often try modafinil (Provigil) or armodafinil (Nuvigil) first for narcolepsy. Modafinil and armodafinil aren’t as addictive as older stimulants and don’t produce the highs and lows often associated with older stimulants. Side effects are uncommon, but may include headache, nausea or anxiety. Some people need treatment with methylphenidate (Aptensio XR, Concerta, Ritalin, others) or various amphetamines. These medications are very effective but can be addictive. They may cause side effects such as nervousness and heart palpitations.
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) – Doctors often prescribe these medications, which suppress REM sleep, to help alleviate the symptoms of cataplexy, hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis. They include fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem, Selfemra) and venlafaxine (Effexor XR). Side effects can include weight gain, insomnia and digestive problems.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants – These older antidepressants, such as protriptyline (Vivactil), imipramine (Tofranil) and clomipramine (Anafranil), are effective for cataplexy, but many people complain of side effects, such as dry mouth and lightheadedness.
  • Sodium oxybate (Xyrem) – This medication is highly effective for cataplexy. Sodium oxybate helps to improve nighttime sleep, which is often poor in narcolepsy. In high doses it may also help control daytime sleepiness. It must be taken in two doses, one at bedtime and one up to four hours later. Xyrem can have side effects, such as nausea, bed-wetting and worsening of sleepwalking. Taking sodium oxybate together with other sleeping medications, narcotic pain relievers or alcohol can lead to difficulty breathing, coma and death.

If you have other health problems, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, ask your doctor how the medications you take for your other conditions may interact with those taken for narcolepsy. Certain over-the-counter drugs, such as allergy and cold medications, can cause drowsiness. If you have narcolepsy, your doctor will likely recommend that you avoid taking these medications.

Emerging treatments being investigated for narcolepsy include drugs acting on the histamine chemical system, hypocretin replacement, hypocretin gene therapy and immunotherapy, but further research is needed before any may be available in your doctor’s office.

Home Remedies for Narcolepsy

There are several measures a person suffering from narcolepsy can take at home to minimize their symptoms. Home remedies include:

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule
  • Set a bedtime that will allow for at least seven hours of sleep a night
  • Do not go to bed unless you are tired
  • If regularly tired during the day, schedule two 15-minute naps
  • Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before bedtime
  • Establish relaxing bedtime rituals
  • Limit exposure to excess light in the evenings (blue light included!)
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Avoid consuming caffeine in the afternoon or evening

DO YOU NEED HELP SLEEPING BETTER?

If you answered “yes,” you’ve come to the right place! Sleep Dynamics can help patients suffering from sleep disorders obtain a proper diagnosis and manage their symptoms. If you’re a New Jersey resident ready to address your sleeping issues head-on, contact us today. We’d be happy to discuss your options with you.

Contact Us
Neptune City Office
Address:
2240 Hwy 33 Suite 114, Neptune City, NJ 07753
Telephone:
732-455-3030
Fax:
888-639-0702
Middletown Office
Address:
1000 RT 35 Suite 102, Middletown, NJ 07748
Telephone:
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Fax:
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Email:
support@sleepdynamics.com