It isn’t often that a child falls asleep during important meetings, such as signing her first recording contract with Jay Z, or nodding off during a Senate hearing on human trafficking, like Willow Smith has done.
Narcolepsy means excessive sleepiness or falling asleep at the most inopportune times.
Children with narcolepsy often are not diagnosed with the sleep disorder until they are well into their teens or adulthood, when the disorder becomes a health issue or a distraction.
Parents assume that children with narcolepsy are simply tired from exerting too much energy during play. The parent doesn’t think much of it when the school calls to report the child is falling asleep during class, or sleeping while standing in line.
The disorder doesn’t become a problem until the teenage or adult narcoleptic accepts a job that requires mental alertness, such as driving a school bus full of children.
It is important to diagnose narcolepsy early in children in order to prevent problems later on, such as applying for vital jobs where mental alertness is key.
News anchors who experience slurred speech while on the air may be narcoleptics.
Signs and symptoms
Only about 20 to 25 percent of people with narcolepsy experience excessive daytime sleepiness, muscle weakness, sleep paralysis and hallucinations at the same time. A select few narcoleptics also experience heightened senses of taste and smell.
Many children or adults with narcolepsy also suffer from insomnia. Narcolepsy is often diagnosed when the symptoms become severe enough to cause serious problems in a person’s social, personal, and professional life.
When a normal person first falls asleep, the brain waves become slower and less regular, and the person slips into a dream state called REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep. The REM (dream) stage normally occurs about an hour after falling asleep.
But individuals with Narcolepsy experience the REM stage upon falling asleep or 5 minutes after falling asleep.
A child should be evaluated for narcolepsy if he or she falls asleep multiple times a day, and he or she is able to recall vivid dreams after only being asleep for 5 or 10 minutes.
Cause of Narcolepsy
Scientists believe that narcolepsy is caused by the body’s auto-immune response to protein changes in the brain. The protein, called hypocretin or orexin, is responsible for controlling appetite and sleep patterns.
In 2004 researchers in Australia induced narcolepsy-like symptoms in mice by injecting them with antibodies from narcoleptic humans. Some scientists believe that the gene that makes individuals susceptible to narcolepsy might be inherited.
Narcolepsy is mainly diagnosed during sleep tests performed by a sleep specialist. The sleep tests are conducted at Sleep Centers or in local hospitals. An overnight stay is usually required to perform the sleep tests.
The Epworth Sleepiness Scale is a brief questionnaire that is given to outpatient individuals to determine if they have sleep disorders.
There is no known cure for narcolepsy. Narcoleptics will experience excessive sleepiness for the rest of their lives. The symptoms can be treated with medications such as stimulants to keep the brain alert. Medications include stimulants, non-stimulants and antidepressants.
In addition to drug therapy, schools can schedule 10 or 15 minute naps for children who are narcoleptics. Some employees are sympathetic to workers with sleep disorders, and will schedule naps two to three times a day for the worker.
This has been your Medical Minute.
More Info on the Web
Narcolepsy – PubMed Health
Narcolepsy – Web MD
Narcolepsy – Mayo Clinic
Narcolepsy – Wikipedia
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