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Narcolepsy

Symptoms and treatment of narcolepsy

Caused by neurons in the brain producing low levels of hypocretin (a protein found in spinal fluid), narcolepsy is a sleep disorder in which a person experiences excessive and uncontrollable sleeping throughout the day. These "sleep attacks" last for approximately 15 minutes and can occur while driving, having a conversation or while participating in non-physically stimulating activities.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms exhibited by a person with this disorder include sleep paralysis (in which the patient experiences temporary paralysis before and after sleep), muscle weakness or cataplexy (brought on by physical expressions of emotions such as laughter), and hallucinations that occur at the brink of sleep or upon awakening.

About 50 percent of patients diagnosed with the disorder detected symptoms of narcolepsy between age 15 and 30, though there are a few cases in which the disorder was detected as early as age 10.

Neurologists at neurology clinics perform sleep studies such as polysomnograms and a multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) to diagnose the disorder. The MSLT measures the time it takes a patient to fall asleep during one of the daytime sleep attacks. Other tests that help detect narcolepsy include electrocardiograms (which measure the electrical activity of the heart), electroencephalograms (which measure electrical activity in the brain) and in some instances, a blood test, since some studies indicate that narcolepsy could be genetic.

Treatment

Though there is no known cure or prevention method for narcolepsy, there are a few ways to control the symptoms of the disorder. These measures include:

  • Scheduled naps that regulate sleep and reduce the number of daily sleep attacks.
  • Eating light meals before important events or activities. Drowsiness is usually brought on by consumption of heavy meals, which is when a sleep attack is likely to occur.

Patients diagnosed with narcolepsy may experience social and academic difficulties. In most cases, patients are restricted from driving and operating machinery.

Neurologists most commonly prescribe stimulant medications such as Dexedrine and Dextrostat, and some antidepressants like Ritalin and Provigil to reduce the feeling of weakness.

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