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Symptoms of Narcolepsy

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The symptoms of narcolepsy affect 50,000 to 2.4 million people in the United States. Calculating the exact statistics is challenging because so many cases go undiagnosed. On average, people suffering from uncontrollable sleeping are unfortunately, not diagnosed with narcolepsy within ten years of their first symptoms.

Some Shocking Observations About Narcolepsy

This sleep disorder affects both men and women equally, and usually occurs during the teenage years. As with any medical condition, there are several other medical conditions that may have similar symptoms, making narcolepsy difficult to diagnose at first.

However, the symptoms of narcolepsy can be debilitating for the 50,000 patients diagnosed each year. For example it is not uncommon for narcolepsy suffers to...

  • Find themselves "on autopilot" and struggling to regain their control.
  • Scribble down words about sleepiness during the daytime and crash, head down on the desk, for 30 to 60 minutes at a time.
  • Get lost while driving or cause car accidents.
  • Fall asleep in the middle of an argument or while having sex.
  • Appear hyperactive (this is particularly true for teenagers with narcolepsy) or have extreme difficulty focusing or remembering things.

The symptoms of narcolepsy are often incorrectly diagnosed. One study found that 40% of narcolepsy sufferers were misdiagnosed - 17% with neurotic disorders and 16% with depression. Others were diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which are normally treated with potent anti-psychotic drugs that have little impact on narcolepsy.

The Four Major Symptoms of Narcolepsy

There are four main symptoms of narcolepsy:

  • Excessive sleepiness during daytime hours
  • Sudden loss of muscle control
  • Hallucinations
  • Sleep paralysis

To be diagnosed with narcolepsy, a patient will usually have two of these symptoms (episodes of suddenly falling asleep and loss of muscle control are most common), however 15% of narcoleptics exhibit all four symptoms. Since sleepiness is a common symptom for many medical conditions, it is important to distinguish the precise definition of narcolepsy to avoid prescribing the wrong type of medication and further complicating matters.

Narcolepsy symptoms range from mild to severe, but 90% of all sufferers have daytime sleepiness and daytime sleep attacks, which may occur even after seemingly "normal" nights' sleep. Narcoleptics may also...

  • Fall asleep while reading, watching TV or sitting in a meeting. These midday naps usually last 30 minutes to an hour.
  • Suddenly become drowsy amid moments of extreme emotion, such as after laughing, yelling, feeling exhilarated or surprised.
  • Lack energy, experience mental "fogs" or have trouble focusing, and feelings of depression.
  • Experience cataplexy (common symptom in 75% of suffers) - a condition marked by sudden losses of muscle control.
  • Drop things they're holding or lose all control and fall. These episodes are often caused by strong emotions and may last several seconds or several minutes. In less than a third of narcolepsy sufferers, hallucinations or sleep paralysis may occur just before nodding off or awakening.

Excessive daytime sleepiness is the primary symptom of narcolepsy and must be present for at least three months before people can be accurately diagnosed with the disease.

Why It's Important to Obtain a Diagnosis from a Board-Certified Sleep Physician

The symptoms of narcolepsy sometimes mimic other medical conditions, so it's important you get properly diagnosed by a sleep specialist who can other conditions like depression, epilepsy and side effects from medications such as common cold and allergy remedies.

Often, depressed patients feel the need to sleep all the time, which could be a result of chemical imbalances. Epileptic patients often fall into seizures when they're highly stimulated and are alert during the attack. On the other hand, narcoleptics usually lose muscle control amid a day marked with sleepiness.

In order to be certain of their diagnoses and rule out other conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, obstructive sleep apea, head traumas, infectious mononucleosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, hepatitis or atypical pneumonia. They will also look into other possible causes for their patients' sleep paralysis, including irregular sleep habits, insomnia, shift work, jet lag, or psychological stress.

These and other concerns are why it's critically important for everyone who suspects they, or someone they love, may be suffering from narcolepsy to see a board-certified sleep physician right away. This is the only way they can be certain that they've received proper diagnoses and treatment.


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