March is Narcolepsy Awareness Month

Teen-boy-girl-asleep-school-shutterstock_91930403This month, Lion Sleep Labs is recognizing the importance of narcolepsy awareness.  Narcolepsy is believed to be an autoimmune neurological disorder that affects 200,000 Americans and 3 million people worldwide.  Despite its prevalence, it is a condition that too frequently goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

Those who suffer from narcolepsy symptoms can tell you that the disease is a serious challenge that can cause undesirable cognitive and behavioral deviations.  Narcolepsy is most often characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), but other symptoms can include:

  • Hallucinations that are vivid and often frightening
  • Temporary sleep paralysis during waking or when falling asleep
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Disturbed nocturnal sleep
  • Hyperactivity, leg jerks and restlessness
  • Attention deficits
  • Decreased mental clarity
  • Memory problems

In some extreme cases, narcolepsy can cause sudden uncontrollable sleep attacks that can be very dangerous during daily activities such as eating, walking or driving.  Some types of narcolepsy also involve a symptom called cataplexy – a sudden loss of voluntary muscle control that is often triggered by intense emotions such as anger, laughter or surprise.  Cataplexy symptoms can range from slurred speech to total body collapse.

The exact cause of narcolepsy is still unknown, but it has been linked to low levels of hypocretin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate sleeping and waking cycles.  Although narcolepsy may run in some families, it is not typically recognized as a genetic condition.

Testing for Narcolepsy

Proper diagnosis of narcolepsy should involve a physical exam and an exhaustive evaluation of a patient’s medical history.  A spinal fluid sample may be used for a hypocretin test to check levels of the neurotransmitter in the fluid that surrounds the spine. There are also several in-depth analyses and essential sleep tests that should be conducted in our specialized facility to confirm a narcolepsy diagnosis.

A polysomnogram (PSG) test will measure a variety of signals during a patient’s sleep cycle using electrode technology.  During an overnight evaluation, a PSG test will monitor the electrical activity of the brain, muscle and eye movements, and breathing patterns.

A multiple sleep latency test will measure how long it takes a patient to fall asleep during daytime hours when asked to take several periodic naps.  People who have narcolepsy will fall asleep easily and quickly enter into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Treatments & Coping  with Narcolepsy

There is currently no known cure for narcolepsy, but symptoms can be managed with behavioral therapy, lifestyle modifications and medication.  Some practical methods of managing symptoms of narcolepsy include:

  • Taking several short (10-15 minutes) naps daily to cope with excessive sleepiness
  • Establishing and maintaining routine exercise, eating, and sleeping schedules
  • Avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol

Approximately 1 in every 2,000 people, including many children, are affected by narcolepsy.  Though there are many public misconceptions about the disease, it can involve very serious symptoms that can interfere with a happy and healthy lifestyle.

If you would like to learn more about narcolepsy or for more information on the specialized sleep tests that can help diagnose narcolepsy and other sleep-related conditions, contact Lion Sleep Labs today.