Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that can cause a sudden “sleep attack” during any type of activity or any time of day. It’s relatively rare: only one in 2,000 American adults have been diagnosed. But, it can severely limit your life – people with narcolepsy don’t dare drive, and holding down a job can be challenging, to say the least.
If you or someone in your family drops off to sleep without warning, it’s important to get tested for narcolepsy as soon as possible. The experts at Central Maine Healthcare specialize in diagnosing and treating this condition, helping you find peace of mind and the healthy, routine sleep habits you need.
When you have narcolepsy, it means your brain can’t control your sleep and wake cycles. The disorder usually begins when you’re young—between ages 10 and 25—but diagnosing it can take up to 10 years because so many other disorders show the same symptoms. In fact, it’s estimated that half of people with narcolepsy have not been diagnosed.
- Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS)—more than “ordinary” fatigue, people with EDS are tired all the time and when they get sleepy, they fall sound asleep, whether they’re driving a car, talking or even standing
- Frightening nightmares, seeming like hallucinations
- “Cataplexy,” a weakening of your muscles when you feel strong emotions of any kind, whether it’s laughter, surprise or anger. Your head will drop, your face will droop, jaws weaken and knees give out. You might even fall down.
- Sleep disruption – you can fall asleep but it’s difficult to wake up.
- Sleep paralysis — you can’t move or speak when you’re falling asleep or waking up. Sometimes you can’t breathe.
Getting You Back to Good Sleep
To diagnose narcolepsy or another sleep disorder, we may recommend a sleep study, available at our nationally accredited sleep center in Lewiston. During your visit, you may undergo two of the gold-standard tests:
- PSG (polysomnography), an overnight exam that measures your brain waves, oxygen levels, heart rate, leg movements and eye movements; and
- MSLT (multiple sleep latency test), which takes place the morning after the PSG and measures daytime sleepiness.
Based on those results, your Central Maine pulmonologist will work with you to create a personal treatment plan, which may include medication and/or lifestyle changes.
The first drug treatment usually is a stimulant for the central nervous system, because it’s less addictive than other choices and causes fewer side effects.
If that type of stimulant isn’t effective, your doctor may prescribe an amphetamine-like stimulant. These meds are less desirable because they not only can cause unhealthy side effects such as shakiness and heart rhythm fluctuations, they also are potentially easy to abuse.
Simple lifestyle adjustments can also help normalize your sleep patterns: taking short naps, getting on a regular sleep schedule, cutting alcohol and caffeine before bedtime, exercising, stopping smoking and relaxation exercises.
In addition, your doctor will make you aware of safety precautions you need to take if you’re diagnosed with narcolepsy. You don’t want to be driving, either alone or with passengers, if your sleep/wake cycles aren’t completely under control.