Cocooned in our warm bed covers, it’s a wonder we ever choose to leave the wondrous ‘Land of Nod’ in the mornings. But for some people, even when awake, that land is never too far away and could suck them back in at any time. Narcolepsy is a neurological condition associated with a fault in the mechanisms in the brain which control wakefulness and sleep. This commonly causes people to have an irresistible tendency to fall asleep at any time of day, often at inappropriate times, such as eating or in the middle of a conversation. Most people experience the onset of symptoms between the ages of 15 and 30, but it’s only since the late 1990s that great strides in the understanding of this condition have been made.
The cause of narcolepsy is unknown but recent studies suggest that it may be a genetic disorder. Medical research has also linked narcolepsy to a imbalance of chemicals in the brain and to major life events. For example, some sufferers have begun to show symptoms of narcolepsy days or weeks after events such as pregnancy, periods of psychological stress, sudden changes in sleep patterns and head trauma. Contrary to popular belief, narcolepsy is not caused by depression, seizures, fainting or simple lack of sleep.
The symptoms can vary from being mild to very severe and can include ‘sleep attacks’, where the sufferer falls asleep suddenly, excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) and muscle weakness when responding to emotion e.g. laughter. Other reported symptoms are hallucinations, sleep paralysis, difficulty concentrating and restless sleep. These symptoms normally begin to develop during adolescence but it can start earlier and in rare cases even in middle-age. While narcolepsy does not usually cause physical health problems, the affect on a sufferer’s personal and private life can be very significant. School and work can become difficult as sufferers can be perceived as being lazy. Relationships can also come under strain as a result of excessive drowsiness so it is important to talk through how the condition personal affects those suffering with the condition with family and friends.
Unfortunately, there is no cure as yet for narcolepsy but there are a number of treatments available to control the symptoms. These include taking frequent day-time naps, having a healthy and active lifestyle, taking medication and using prescribed stimulants to combat drowsiness. Sticking to a sleep schedule can help, and it is advisable to avoid using nicotine and alcohol as these have been proven to worsen symptoms.
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