You’ve probably seen narcolepsy on the big screen.
On HBO’s The Sopranos, Janice Soprano’s boyfriend Aaron had it. One of the characters in the movie Rat Race, played by the zany Rowan Atkinson, had it. And let's not forget the narcoleptic Argentinian from Moulin Rouge!
Time and time again, narcolepsy has been parodied and dramatized by creative minds looking to add a little interest to their fictional worlds and, in most of cases, the audience gets a pretty good laugh out of it.
But narcolepsy is a neurological sleep disorder that needs real medical treatment. What exactly causes these seemingly random sleep attacks? And what does someone with narcolepsy need to do in order to function with a normal daily routine?
Narcolepsy is an autoimmune disorder characterized by sudden and severe sleep attacks that usually occur in the middle of the day and during inappropriate times, such as during work or while a person is behind the wheel.
It's thought that these attacks occur due to a misfire within the area of the brain associated with the regulation of sleep and wake.
Narcoleptics typically experience, in order of most to least common symptoms:
Not every one of these symptoms necessarily needs to be present in order to diagnose a patient with narcolepsy. If any are present, they usually can be traced back to a person’s adolescent years. Most people don’t seem to seek out help or realize that there’s a problem until much later in life.
As we mentioned earlier, the deficiency is thought to affect the regulation of activity by the hypothalamus, the section of the brain that largely controls sleep. Generally, people with lower levels of hypocretin are more at risk of developing narcolepsy.
Scientists who study chemical ad hormonal imbalances in the body have suggested that narcolepsy has very close origins in genetics. A family who has a history of defective hypocretin neurotransmitters is much more likely to yield family members who grow up to be narcoleptics.
There are several tests that you can undergo to find out if you have narcolepsy. One popular test administered is the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, a series of 8 questions used to measure symptoms of excessive daytime sleepiness. Typically, patients who score 10 points or higher on the test should be checked out by a medical doctor.
If a potential narcoleptic goes to a sleep center for a diagnosis, a polysomnography will undoubtedly be performed to check for any sleep disorders.
To find out if you have narcolepsy--or if your excessive daytime sleepiness and irregular sleep patterns are just a side effect of a medication or other temporary condition--sleep doctors also suggest keeping a diary and observing how sleep patterns change under different circumstances. You’d basically be conducting a small home experiment to try and isolate the cause of your symptoms.
Narcolepsy can be a debilitating illness if left untreated. Narcoleptics may feel that their symptoms are holding them back socially, professionally and even romantically.
While there’s no official "cure" for narcolepsy, but there are several medications available that may inhibit or reduce your symptoms by adjusting your hormone levels and stimulating the parts of your brain that control alertness.
In addition to modes of self-help, such as seeking out emotional support with a counselor, there are also lifestyle changes that have been shown to help narcoleptics cope with their symptoms such as:
With the help of friends, family and medical professionals in dealing with this neurological sleep disorder, narcoleptics can free themselves from their symptoms and regain control over their lives.