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Narcolepsy: How to Address the Sleep Disorder

When you have unusual sleeping habits or find it hard to stay up, it’s best to determine if you are suffering from narcolepsy. It’s important to diagnose the problem early since the risks can greatly increase as time goes by. There are a number of approaches and techniques that will help patients cope with the condition. Identifying the specific causes and effects will also be helpful to keep the patient safe and protected at all times. Narcolepsy actually points a deeper problem that should be attended to immediately.

About Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is described as a chronic disorder that affects the central nervous system. It is a neurological disease that involves the region of the brain that is responsible for sleep and wakeful periods. When damage or problems are present in the affected region of the brain, the patient can exhibit abnormal sleepiness in very odd times of the day.

There are also other behavioral and emotional effects that should be noted. People can put themselves at risk since they can immediately fall asleep while doing certain tasks like driving, operating heavy machinery or cooking. All patients will present EDS or excessive daytime sleepiness. The problem can stem from deeper underlying health conditions that should be treated. Some people have very good prognosis especially if the serious illness is addressed well.

Narcolepsy can occur among children, teenagers and adults. Both male and females can be affected by the condition. There seems to be no particular group of individuals who are predisposed or especially at risk for developing the disorder. The condition can remain subtle for a long period of time and then progress over the years. Patients should also be watchful for other associated symptoms. The goal for patients is to improve their sleeping habits, alleviate the symptoms, maintain safety and boost alertness and activeness.

The Causes of Narcolepsy

Several tests and studies have been conducted in the past several years trying to point out the exact causes of narcolepsy. Recent findings show that certain abnormalities in the brain, alterations in the structure and roles of certain nerve cells and problems in the way nerves communicate and send signals can all lead to the problem. When nerve cells are involved, defective hypocretin neurons, in particular, will cause fewer secretions of neurotransmitter materials called hypocretins, thereby leading to abnormal sleepiness. Changes in the hypocretin system can lead to daytime sleepiness as well as unusual changes in REM sleep among patients.

Many individuals diagnosed with narcolepsy are found to have low levels of hypocretin in the brain as well as in the cerebrospinal fluid or CSF. Many experts have come to the conclusion that narcolepsy is an auto-immune disorder wherein the body’s immune system attacks its own cells.

A certain kind of antibody called HLA or human leukocyte antigen will attack neurons, thereby changing the way neurotransmitters function. Among patients, HLA levels are rather high, which will trigger the abnormal effects that lead to sleepiness. There are also experts who say that genetic factors have a role in the development of narcolepsy. However, this is not fully proven and understood. Some experts say that genetic mutations cause problems in the hypocretin system which triggers the abnormalities.

Signs and Symptoms of Narcolepsy

People who have narcolepsy will have EDS or excessive daytime sleepiness. This symptom is the major indicator that the condition is present. All patients will display EDS. Other major symptoms include cataplexy or loss of muscle tone, sleep paralysis or difficulty or complete inability to talk or move and distorted perceptions, also known as hypnagogic hallucinations. Affected individuals might also show other narcolepsy signs and symptoms like inability or difficulty sleeping at night, involuntary or automatic actions or behavior, droopy eyelids, blurred vision, double vision, body weakness, constant yawning, tired feeling and lack of energy or enthusiasm. The symptoms will present in different degrees and extents.

Narcolepsy: About EDS

EDS or excessive daytime sleepiness is one of the major concerns of patients and families. The person with narcolepsy can fall asleep quickly or immediately regardless of the place, time and activity. The sleepiness is evident throughout the day so the patient will need to exert extra effort or might even resort to different products and substances to stay awake. Individuals will have difficulty learning or performing well due to lack of focus, concentration and energy.

All patients with narcolepsy will have excessive daytime sleepiness. The effects and symptoms can be similar to multiple sclerosis or other brain diseases so doctors have to rule out the presence of these until an underlying condition can be discovered. About 1 in every 2,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with narcolepsy. The condition can also be indicative of other conditions like brain disease, mental illness or diseases affecting the vital organs.

Treating Narcolepsy

There are several approaches that will help alleviate the associated symptoms. However, many doctors will agree that the main problem should be addressed to fully eliminate the condition. The goals and management options will differ among patients depending on their age, response to treatment and the severity of symptoms. Drug therapy and behavioral therapy are two of the most common interventions for the treatment of narcolepsy. Since the condition is chronic, these approaches will require several weeks or months.

There are different medications that will help stimulate the patient. Some patients need to take more than one drug per day. Other medications will address symptoms like cataplexy and insomnia. Improved alertness is important especially for employees and students. During the first few weeks, patients have to be monitored closely. It’s best to record the progress and response to different medications and therapies by keeping a logbook. Many patients cope with narcolepsy effectively or completely get rid of the problem after several months.

Amphetamines, armodafinil, anticataplectic drugs and SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are all useful depending on the presenting symptoms. The SSRIs in particular are helpful in balancing the neurotransmitters and improving the way the person functions and performs. Side effects should be reported to the doctor immediately to avoid complications.


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Written by Dr. Ozair (CEO of SignSymptom.com) as physician writers are physicians who write creatively in fields outside their practice of medicine.

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