What are the symptoms of narcolepsy?

  1. Excessive daytime sleepiness
  2. Disrupted nighttime sleep
  3. Sleep paralysis
  4. Hallucinations related to sleep
  5. Cataplexy

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder and autoimmune disease that alters the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Although rarely occurring compared to other sleep disorders, narcolepsy can be debilitating and life-threatening. Narcolepsy patients may experience excessive daytime sleepiness with involuntary sleep lapses. These happen during inappropriate moments like when talking, eating, walking, driving, and even sex. There is currently no known cure for this condition so understanding narcolepsy symptoms is the key to help patients cope with the condition more effectively.

People normally sleep through a series of stages and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occurs during the final stage. With narcolepsy, REM sleep begins earlier than normal, often minutes after falling asleep. The condition causes the brain to improperly regulate wakefulness and sleep. This results in work, social, and school impairments as well as a three to four-fold increased risk of being in a driving accident.

Let’s delve deeper into the five symptoms of narcolepsy below to help you or a loved one in managing the condition.

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

Everyone suffering from narcolepsy experiences excessive daytime sleepiness with other symptoms occurring less often.

Excessive daytime sleepiness refers to an irresistible urge to sleep even when a person gets enough sleep at night. Sleepiness often increases during monotonous moments such as when sitting in a classroom or watching television. After a short nap, those with narcolepsy typically temporarily feel energized and alert.

On top of that, people with narcolepsy often end up oversleeping during the day. Sudden sleep laps may also range from a few seconds to minutes. Afterward, there may be little to no memory or awareness of these laps occurring.

There is no known cure for narcolepsy, but there are medications that can help manage its symptoms. Provigil is a medication that is commonly prescribed to cope with excessive daytime sleepiness attacks.

Disrupted Nighttime Sleep

Recent research suggests that disrupted nighttime sleep, also known as sleep fragmentation, is a common symptom of narcolepsy. The symptom affects approximately between 30% to 95% of patients with narcolepsy. Disrupted nighttime sleep causes a person to wake up multiple times throughout the night.

Narcolepsy is primarily caused by the loss of brain cells that produce neurotransmitters known as orexins. Orexins regulate wakefulness and sleep. When there is a lack of orexins produced, changes in the sleep-wake cycle occur spontaneously. This is the primary reason why disrupted nighttime sleep is experienced by patients with narcolepsy.

Other bothersome sleep problems that may occur alongside disrupted nighttime sleep include insomnia, sleep apnea, and periodic limb movement disorder. Practicing good sleep hygiene may help manage disrupted nighttime sleep symptoms associated with narcolepsy.

Sleep Paralysis

Sleep Paralysis

People with narcolepsy experience sleep paralysis, which refers to the temporary loss of muscle control. While falling asleep or waking up, they may feel unable to speak or move with the event lasting from several seconds to minutes.

For people without narcolepsy, the REM stage of sleep is reached 60 to 90 minutes after falling asleep. During this time, there is an increase in brain activity and vivid dreaming is common. Atonia, which refers to temporary muscle paralysis, also occurs during REM sleep and normally ends when a person wakes up.

As stated earlier, people with narcolepsy enter REM sleep earlier, often within 15 minutes. For this reason, events normally occurring during REM sleep bleed into wakefulness. As atonia persists after the person wakes up, those with narcolepsy experience sleep paralysis. Antidepressant medications like imipramine and clomipramine are often prescribed to patients who experience this.

Hallucinations Related To Sleep

Hallucinations experienced by those who suffer from narcolepsy can be extremely frightening or disturbing. They often occur when falling asleep or waking up and can accompany sleep paralysis.
Hallucinations may involve vivid imagery or frightening images that depict a strange figure in the bedroom.

However, the hallucinations may also involve other senses such as taste, hearing, smell, or touch. Similar to sleep paralysis, experts suggest that the hallucinations from narcolepsy result from the improper regulation of wakefulness and sleep.

Cataplexy

Cataplexy

Not to be confused with sleep paralysis, cataplexy occurs when a person is fully awake and conscious and manifests in a sudden loss of muscular control. Episodes of cataplexy often happen in response to strong emotions like laughter, joy, anger, excitement, and surprise.

When associated with narcolepsy, cataplexy may appear weeks or even a year after the onset of primary symptoms like excessive daytime sleepiness. Some patients may experience cataplexy only one or two times throughout their lifetime, while others may experience several attacks throughout the day.

Episodes may be mild, lasting only a few seconds and involving a few muscle groups like slight eyelid drooping. More severe episodes may last several minutes and cause the entire body to lose muscle control. Patients with severe cataplexy may experience being unable to speak, keep their eyes open, or complete body paralysis. Symptoms may likewise be managed by taking medically prescribed antidepressants.

Key Takeaway

As you’ve read, narcolepsy symptoms can have negative impacts on overall life quality. The condition can also be fatal as it involves involuntary sleep lapses. If you notice that you exhibit these symptoms of narcolepsy, consider consulting a health professional for proper intervention.