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Narcolepsy: Causes, Treatment and Diagnosis
If you experience strong urges to nap during the day or find yourself nodding off in a meeting or while having coffee with friends, you may suffer from narcolepsy. This condition comes in many different forms and the symptoms are often similar to other sleep disorders which is why so many people are left untreated or misdiagnosed.
Sufferers of narcolepsy report dropping to the ground asleep while laughing, being startled or angry and in high-stress situations. Like most sleep disorders, it can affect productivity, relationships and your ability to cope with day to day living. But more concerning is living with the reality that you may fall asleep while walking, eating, showering or even driving. Which is why untreated narcolepsy can be very dangerous.
What Is Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects how and when you sleep. You could doze off at any time of the day regardless of what you are doing. Usually, your sleep cycle goes through 5 stages from light to deep sleep with the final stage being REM (Rapid Eye Movement). During REM your brain waves speed up and dreaming occurs, your muscles relax and your breathing increases. But if you have narcolepsy REM occurs almost immediately in the sleep cycle.
What Causes Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is caused by the loss of a brain chemical called hypocretins. Hypocretins are neurotransmitters that regulate your sleep/wake cycle. They also regulate blood pressure and your metabolism.
The verdict is still out on what causes the loss of hypocretin and more research needs to be done in this area. However, current research narrows the causes down to a combination of genetic and environmental factors that impact on your immune system.
How Do You Know If You Have Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is more common than you think. In fact, one in 200 people have it and of those people 25% are undiagnosed. That’s because the signs that you have this condition are similar to other sleep disorders and health issues.
If you fall asleep uncontrollably then it’s a sure sign that you may have narcolepsy. But if you’re like most people you may simply suffer from daytime sleepiness. Which is why it is often misdiagnosed.
Other symptoms you may experience are sleep paralysis, hallucinations, constantly waking up during the night and cataplexy.
Cataplexy is a sudden loss of muscle tone caused by a strong emotion. Muscle tone is what keeps us standing which is why people with narcolepsy may suddenly drop to the ground or slump over. Not everyone who has narcolepsy will experience cataplexy but for those that do, it’s important to have your sleep disorder diagnosed by your doctor.
How Is Narcolepsy Diagnosed?
Narcolepsy can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are so similar to sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and circadian rhythm disorder. However, a sleep study will help determine the differences between these disorders. If you think you may have narcolepsy talk to your doctor or health specialist about having a sleep study.
What Is The Treatment For Narcolepsy?
We know that narcolepsy is caused by the loss of hypocretin but unfortunately at this stage hypocretin cannot be replaced safely. The best way to deal with it is to relieve the symptoms and take care of your health and wellbeing.
While your doctor may prescribe medication following diagnosis, it’s also worth backing that up with these healthy practices:
- Practice good sleep hygiene. We have some helpful tips on how to do this starting from tonight.
- Cut back on stimulants like caffeine, alcohol, and drugs.
- Explore complementary therapy options. Herbal remedies, meditation, massage, and acupuncture can all have positive effects on this condition.
- Join a support group. Many people with narcolepsy find that one of the biggest challenges is not having anyone to talk to who understands what they’re going through. This condition can be very isolating when people don’t understand. Being part of a support group is a great way to feel understood.
Can You Prevent Narcolepsy?
You cannot prevent narcolepsy but as we mentioned above you can reduce the symptoms. Support from friends, family and other people with your condition is important. Talking to your family members, colleagues and friends about your condition can decrease risk and help prevent injuries and accidents. If they understand your condition they may be able to recognise what triggers it and help you during sleep attacks. Having someone who knows what to do during a sleep attack also helps minimise fear and panic. Which means that going about your day to day life is a whole lot easier.
What To Do If You Think You Have Narcolepsy
The information in this article is not medical advice. If you suffer from daytime sleepiness talk to your doctor. While narcolepsy may be the cause for your tiredness there are other sleep disorders that need to be ruled out.
Narcolepsy and sleep disorders can lead to long-term and even life-threatening health problems. A sleep study will help determine the cause of your daytime tiredness so that your doctor can make a well-informed diagnosis.
If you or someone you know is suffering from daytime sleepiness it’s important to seek help. Don’t put it off any longer. The negative consequences of sleep disorders are serious, and the effects of treatment are extraordinarily positive. Call us today on 1300 246 637 or submit the contact form below for a free no-obligation chat with one of our friendly Sleep Therapists. Contact us now.
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