Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that involves the body's central nervous system. People with narcolepsy experience sudden, overpowering attacks of sleepiness lasting from a few seconds to half an hour. They might suffer dozens or even hundreds of these attacks each day. This can happen at any time, and is often accompanied by a loss of muscle tone or partial paralysis, a condition called cateplexy that is triggered by the experience of a strong emotion, usually laughter or anger. These cataplexy episodes occur during the day, sometimes many times a day. Then, at night, people with narcolepsy may suffer from sleep paralysis, a condition of being unable to speak or move even though fully aware of external events.
For people with narcolepsy, the most important and debilitating effect of the disorder is that they are unbearably sleepy all the time. Their struggle to stay awake is relentless, and whenever they let down their guard, sleep immediately overcomes them. Even when they are on guard, they are often overtaken by sleep-in the middle of a sentence, while eating, or even during sex. Such unintended sleep "attacks" may last up to 10 or 20 minutes, and then victims wake up feeling somewhat refreshed. Soon afterward, they become sleepy again. The attacks may be triggered by excitement or other intense emotions.
It is nearly impossible for people with narcolepsy to lead normal lives. Relationships are often damaged irreversibly when patients fall asleep during a conversation--or even during sex. It is difficult for mates to understand that it is narcolepsy, a disease, not boredom, that causes their mate to fall asleep at emotionally charged moments. The sufferers find it very difficult to function socially. They often withdraw completely from active social life to minimize embarrassment.
Narcolepsy is a genetic disorder. The cause or causes of narcolepsy are unknown, but brain infection, head trauma, or brain tumors maybe behind some cases. It is known that narcolepsy is almost never the result of insomnia or sleep deprivation. Sleep lab studies show that narcolepsy results from a severe disturbance in the normal architecture of sleep. Specifically, people with narcolepsy go into the REM stage first, instead of at the end of a sleep cycle as in healthy people.
Narcolepsy affects both men and women of any age. It has been identified in children as young as three and has first emerged as late as 50 in a few adults. The peak time of onset is during adolescence. Typically, the first symptoms of narcolepsy appear between the ages of 15 and 30. Often 10-15 years pass between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis. It's particularly harmful when narcolepsy occurs in children and isn't recognized. Parents often mistake the behavior of a narcoleptic child as from being uncooperative, lazy, and liar.
According to the American Narcolepsy Association, 1 out of every 1000 Americans is afflicted with this disorder. Yet, between 50 and 80 percent of them remain undiagnosed.
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