Narcolepsy: Sleep without Warning

(narcoleptics struggle against sleepiness all day long)

Characteristics of narcolepsy or uncontrollable sleep

Among other things, narcolepsy causes cataplexy, or sudden episodes of the loss of muscle function, ranging from slight weakness; such as, limpness at the neck or knees, sagging facial muscles, or the inability to speak clearly, and on to complete body collapse.

Episodes may be triggered by sudden emotional reactions; such as, laughter, anger, surprise, or fear, and may last from a few seconds to several minutes. The person remains conscious throughout the episode.

There are also characteristics of sleep paralysis; that is, temporary inability to talk or to move when falling asleep or waking up. It may last a few seconds to minutes.

  • Instead of feeling awake for sixteen hours and sleepy for eight, as most people do, a naroleptic, like other narcoleptics, wants to sleep every couple of hours during the day.
  • Eventually the desire to sleep is overwhelming, and then the person with this sleep disorder may actually fall asleep, usually for a few seconds or up to several minutes.
  • He/She may nod off in the middle of a lecture, a meeting, a conversation, or even while driving a car.
  • Narcolepsy is believed to afflict one in 2,000 Americans, or at least 150,000 people; and possibly many more.
  • People with the disorder typically do not recognize their sleepiness as a sign of a disease, experts say, so they do not consult a doctor and as a result, they are often diagnosed with the disorder ten to fifteen years after their first symptoms appear.
  • During that time, studies have shown, people with narcolepsy suffer immensely at work and in their social relationships.
  • Many are unemployed, because employers or potential ones often dismiss them as lazy and fail to provide the accommodations these people need to perform well.
  • A German psychiatrist, Carl Friedrich Otto, of Westphal first described narcolepsy in 1877; yet, only recently have researchers begun to decipher the biological causes of this strange malady.
  • Investigators have focused on a brain chemical that is conspicuously absent in the brains of narcoleptics.
  • In addition, surprising new evidence suggests that narcolepsy may be an autoimmune disorder like Type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis.
  • Existing in an involuntary dreamland

  • Doctors can diagnose narcolepsy by listening in on a person's brain at night.
  • In a sleep study, or polysomnogram, electrodes pick up a subject's brain waves and muscle movements throughout the night, revealing the periods when the patient is awake or in the various stages of sleep.
  • Cataplexy, or muscle collapse, increases dangers to narcoleptics

  • During the day when some narcolepics fall into an uncontrollable sleep, they experience a muscle collapse, or cataplexy, which is similar to the muscle slackening that occurs during normal sleep.
  • In cataplexy, strong emotions; such as, elation, surprise, or anger may cause a narcoleptic's knees to buckle or his or her head to drop.
  • In the worst situations, the entire muscle system fails, causing the person to fall down, paralyzed, for a few seconds to several minutes.
  • The prevention of narcolepsy is still an impractical goal; in other words, scientists still have not found a cure.
—Information and excerpts came from
"Seduced by Sleep" by Joachim Marschall, in Scientific American Mind,
February/March, 2007, pages 52-55.

Related "sleep" words are available at this narco- word unit.