What is narcolepsy?

   Narcolepsy is a condition that usually makes its first appearance in the late teens. Its most characteristic symptom is what many victims rightly call sleep attacks because they are so overwhelming. Regardless of how well they have slept the night before, people with narcolepsy may experience many episodes of sleepiness during the day that may last fifteen minutes or so and cause them to fall asleep—even in the midst of a conversation or at the dinner table.

   As many as 80 percent of victims have another symptom, called cataplexy. Some or many body muscles may become suddenly and briefly paralyzed when a strong emotion such as fear or anger is experienced.
In addition, some victims may experience visual or auditory hallucinations when falling asleep during the day or at night, and they may experi­ence fleeting paralysis when they wake.

   Because the disorder of narcolepsy has been unfamiliar to most laymen and even to some physicians, an average of fifteen years elapsed between its first appearance and the diagnosis, and some authorities say that two-thirds of victims, who may number in the hundreds of thousands, are undiagnosed even now.

   Narcolepsy often can be diagnosed if the patient gives a full account of symptoms. When there is any doubt, a sleep clinic can help. All-night sleep monitoring is valuable for clear-cut narcolepsy detection. At night, narcoleptics tend to fall directly into the state of sleep called REM (rapid eye movement), while other people usu­ally do not enter REM until more than ninety min­utes after falling asleep.

   Although the cause of narcolepsy remains unknown and no cure has been found, stimulant drugs can help control the sleep attacks, and other drugs can eliminate the other symptoms or at least render them more tolerable.