Do you ever feel uncontrollably sleepy during the day? Not just wishing you could sneak off to your car and nap during lunch, but actually falling asleep at your desk? Perhaps you've wondered why you simply cannot stay awake sometimes. You may have one of the many sleep disorders called narcolepsy, which affects 250,000 Americans. It is a puzzling disease, and if you have any of the telltale four symptoms, you should see a doctor.
Some people with narcolepsy have extremely dramatic symptoms, as seen in this video from NBC's Today show. The woman in this video has difficulty staying awake most days, and will suddenly crumple to the floor when her body demands sleep. However, she exhibits a uniquely severe form of the disease. Many people experience just the most common symptom of the disease: powerful excessive daytime sleepiness.
Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS)
Everyone has days when he or she feels like taking a nap, but someone with narcolepsy feels this way often, and not only in the afternoon. If you feel sleepy during the day on a frequent basis, and it is accompanied by difficulty making decisions or thinking clearly, you may have narcolepsy. You may find yourself waking after a moment or two of sleep that you didn't realize you had taken, feeling refreshed and alert for an hour or so afterward. Sometimes narcoleptics doze for just a few seconds and do not pause what they were doing when they fell asleep: "automatic behavior" is the term for continuing to carry out tasks while asleep.
About 70% of those with narcolepsy experience cataplexy, which is a sudden weakening of the body as happens in sleep; it's what keeps us in bed and not jumping up to act out our dreams. This can be as dramatic as in the above video, or as minimally noticeable as a closing of the eyelids for a brief moment. Patients are completely conscious during cataplexy attacks; they just lack the muscle tone to command their bodies to behave as they want. Usually, cataplexy doesn't appear until after EDS is an established symptom.
Have you ever closed your eyes to sleep and immediately found yourself in a vivid dream? Conversely, maybe you've been awakened by the alarm clock and found yourself having difficulty transitioning out of what seems a very real experience. This is a sign that you could have narcolepsy; your brain is generating dream material even though you are not in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep usually occurs at the end of a standard 100-110 minute sleep cycle.
Perhaps you've woken up unable to move at all for a moment or two. This sleep paralysis is, essentially, a cataplectic attack that involves all the muscles in the body. It does occur naturally during sleep, but only when you are entering REM sleep. Being fully awake and yet seemingly paralyzed can be quite disconcerting, but it only last a few minutes and has no longlasting effects.
Not every person with narcolepsy has all four of these symptoms; in fact, to have all of them is unusual and occurs in only one of three narcoleptic patients.
Some narcolepsy patients report that their narcolepsy is cyclical, occurring in regularity that coordinates with monthly, menstrual, or seasonal cycles. A common time for increased narcoleptic symptoms is fall, although it is not clear why this is so.
If you experience excessive daytime sleepiness, cataplexy, hallucinations upon falling asleep or waking up, and/or sleep paralysis, make an appointment with your doctor. While narcolepsy cannot be cured, it can be controlled so that you can continue to live a safe and productive life.