We chuckle at one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, Sleepy, who is always struggling to stay awake – able to fall asleep at the drop of a hat. Many people feel like they can identify with Sleepy, and it’s no joke: As many as 200,000 people in the United States are living with a condition called narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that causes sudden daytime sleepiness along with muscle weakness. This can be a fatal condition if a person who has it is driving and falls asleep, so it is imperative for those with narcolepsy to seek treatment for the condition. Let’s talk about what narcolepsy is, how it can be treated, and who you can talk to about keeping it under control.
What Is Narcolepsy?
This is a condition wherein an individual’s normal sleep-wake cycles are disrupted, thus affecting their normal functioning and daily activities. They may feel an immense urge to sleep during the day, even if they’re in the middle of doing something, and they can also experience interrupted sleep at night.
Other symptoms include cataplexy, which can cause slurred speech and complete muscle weakness, as well as hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial, as the condition poses a high risk to a person’s life – especially when sleep attacks occur while driving or performing other potentially risky activities.
Narcolepsy is believed to be due to low levels of the natural neurochemical hypocretin, which helps to regulate sleep patterns. Researchers are still studying why this occurs in some people but not everyone. Theories include exposure to a virus or an autoimmune disorder.
How Is Narcolepsy Diagnosed?
A sleep medicine specialist may ask you to keep a sleep journal to track your sleeping habits and activities for about 1 to 2 weeks. They can also perform a physical examination to rule out certain neurological disorders. Cataplexy is a key symptom in narcolepsy diagnosis, as this factor alone may eliminate other possible diseases.
Your sleep specialist will likely recommend that you undergo a noninvasive sleep study (polysomnography), which records your brain, heart, eye, and muscle activity while asleep. From this, your doctor can take note if rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occurs early during your sleep, because this can indicate narcolepsy.
Also, the multiple sleep latency test evaluates daytime sleepiness by measuring the time it takes for you to fall asleep. On average, taking less than 8 minutes to fall asleep may be a sign of excessive daytime sleepiness.
Treatments for Narcolepsy
People who are diagnosed with narcolepsy are usually prescribed stimulants and antidepressants. Stimulants can increase your attention, alertness, and energy. They stimulate the brain and keep you awake for most of the day.
Antidepressants may be prescribed to help with muscle control. Tricyclics, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are found to be very effective in controlling cataplexy. SSRIs and SNRIs can also alleviate other symptoms such as hallucinations and sleep paralysis.
Your sleep medicine doctor may recommend certain lifestyle modifications to help alleviate the symptoms of narcolepsy, including:
- Take Naps. Schedule short naps at regular intervals during the day.
- Exercise Regularly. Exercise for at least 10 to 30 minutes approximately 4 to 5 hours before you go to sleep in order to improve sleep quality.
- Watch Your Substance Intake. Avoid smoking or drinking alcohol soon before bedtime. These may interrupt your sleep and worsen your symptoms.
Sleep Doctors in North Texas
Here at Lung & Sleep Specialists of North Texas, we want to help you get the quality sleep you need. Our providers are equipped with the knowledge and experience to help you get in control of your sleep issues, and we also have the facilities that will make your journey – from diagnosis to treatment – convenient and comfortable.
If you have any questions or would like to schedule a consultation, call our caring staff today at (817) 594-9993 or request an appointment via our online form now. We look forward to helping you achieve more normal sleep patterns so you can enjoy a safer, brighter day!