What is Narcolepsy?Most of us experience feeling drowsy during the day or may even take a short nap -given the opportunity. Imagine what it must be like if you literally fell fast asleep several times a day, regardless of the time and place.

Narcolepsy is a rare condition where the sufferer falls asleep up to ten times a day. They have no control over the disorder and although they may feel refreshed after their sleep another episode may follow within a short space of time. Most of us are aware of feeling sleepy and can control when and where we sleep. Sufferers of Narcolepsy may feel extreme tiredness, and will have sleep attacks which they are unable to control.

Attacks may last from a few seconds to several minutes. In rare cases they may last over an hour. Many experience hallucinations as they fall asleep or start to wake and there will be a loss of muscle tone as they suffer an attack.

They may also experience sleep paralysis. This usually happens when they start to fall asleep, or when they start to wake – although the mind is ‘awake’, the body is unable to move.

Out of Control

Usually we are aware that we are falling asleep. Feeling drowsy, we are able to either find a safe place, or delay the onset of sleep. A Narcoleptic may be aware of their extreme tiredness, but be unable to prevent a sleep attack. These attacks come suddenly and may be accompanied by cataplexy where the muscles give way. Sudden emotion can cause an attack and cause distress to the sufferer and others involved.

This is obviously dangerous for the sufferer and others. They may be restricted in their daily lives, due to the risk of losing control during an attack.

Sufferers of Narcolepsy fall into REM sleep rapidly and this is one of the signs being investigated by researchers into this strange disorder. Proper diagnosis is essential and sufferers may be asked to attend a sleep laboratory for testing. In many cases there is a considerable delay before the condition is reported. Research has shown a link with REM sleep onset and testing includes observing how quickly the suffer falls into this sleep stage.

Treatment and Help

The condition usually starts in adolescents or in young adults. There may be a family history of the problem. Although there is presently no cure, the condition is treated with antidepressant drugs and stimulants that help keep the brain awake.

Narcoleptics are also advised to maintain a regular sleep pattern and take daytime naps. They should try and get sufficient rest and keep to a healthy diet, avoiding alcohol and stimulants that may affect their normal night’s sleep. The condition should be properly diagnosed and care taken with daily activities that could put the sufferer in danger during an attack.

Self help groups provide information and support, and cognitive behavioural therapy can help sufferers adjust to the disorder. By developing the skills that encourage a good night’s sleep, and learning relaxation techniques that will help daytime rest, many sufferers are able to manage their symptoms and live a full life.