Cataplexy and Narcolepsy: What you Might Not Know

Sleep disorders are extremely common. Millions of Americans experience problems sleeping at least three nights a week and many of these suffers have been diagnosed with sleep disorders like Sleep Apnea and Insomnia. Narcolepsy is a less common sleeping disorder, affecting around 200,000 Americans. Of those 200,000 Americans with Narcolepsy, or possible symptoms of Narcolepsy, around 50,000 of them are undiagnosed. One symptom of Narcolepsy is Cataplexy.

Of the small population of narcoleptic victims in the world, there is a very small subcategory of patients who experience a dangerous complication. Cataplexy is uniquely associated with Narcolepsy, and is thought to plague one in every 3,000 Americans. Worldwide, Narcolepsy with Cataplexy affects two percent of adults.

What is Cataplexy?

Narcolepsy and Cataplexy are odd and dangerous neurological conditions associated with sleep. While it is a rather rare side effect of Narcolepsy, medical professionals have dubbed Cataplexy as a Narcolepsy symptom. In fact, it is the first symptom identified by ten percent of all patients diagnosed with Narcolepsy.

Cataplexy, as a sign of Narcolepsy, is defined by sudden attack on muscle tone, and the resulting loss of muscle control. When an episode of Cataplexy occurs during waking hours, patients are unable to move for the duration of the attack. Immobility usually occurs on both sides of the victim’s body. Most attacks of Cataplexy are relatively short, less than thirty seconds, but extreme cases can occur. In extreme cases of Cataplexy, it is possible for a patient to remain paralyzed for several minutes at a time. Because these attacks usually happen so quickly, they are often overlooked by sufferers and medical professionals.

The loss of muscle tone that occurs during an episode of Cataplexy mirrors REM activity in the brain. The loss of muscle activity that occurs during an attack is almost the same as the interruption that takes place in brain activity when a patient enters the deepest levels of sleep. During the REM stage, a small group of neurons in the brain stem stop moving around and prevents muscle activity. Essentially, it is the same process for Cataplexy patients.

Why is Cataplexy Dangerous?

Cataplexy and its detrimental affects on muscle weakness can range from relatively mild to dangerous and severe. Attacks can range from the loss of muscle tone and slackening of the face; to the dropping of the head, neck, or jaw; to weakness in the knees; and even to total collapse. Attacks can be partial or complete, affecting a variety of different muscular groups. Most patients are in the middle of daily routine activities during attacks of Cataplexy; they are often in standing positions or are holding things in their hands. When a Narcolepsy patient loses all control of their muscular functioning during seemingly mundane routine activities, these activities suddenly become dangerous. Although Narcolepsy patients remain conscious during an episode of Cataplexy, they have absolutely no control over the severity or length of the episode.

Narcolepsy patients who also suffer from Narcolepsy signs and Cataplexy are at a very high risk of being involved in dangerous accidents. Driving, operating machinery, raising children, and performing at work become extremely difficult when you cannot ensure the maintenance of muscle control or wakefulness.

What Causes Cataplexy?

Cataplexy is such a unique and mysterious disease because it is triggered by very odd stimuli. Most cases of Cataplexy are triggered by the patient’s exposure to a strong emotion. Heightened emotional responses like laughing, crying, and shouting can bring on Cataplexy attacks. Although the collapse of muscle tone in response to emotional situations may seem like a laughing matter, it’s anything but funny. Being social means interacting with other people and interactions often include some kind of emotional response that may possibly trigger an attack in Narcolepsy patients with Cataplexy. Emotional triggers can not be easily avoided. When you walk into the grocery store, you can’t plan whether or not strangers will laugh as they walk by you.

What are the Symptoms of Cataplexy?

Narcolepsy symptoms and Cataplexy usually arise in teenage narcoleptics, but can develop at any stage of life. A significant amount of medical research shows that Narcolepsy, and even Cataplexy, are more common in families with members that suffer from the disorder. Keep an especially close eye on teenage narcoleptic patients and the relatives of Narcolepsy sufferers.

There are varying degrees of Cataplexy symptom severity. Some patients experience symptoms so mild that they are hard to even notice. Other patients suffer from severe cases of Cataplexy and often find themselves unable to move or speak. The debilitating symptoms of the sleep disorder can make it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle or an acceptable quality of life. Going to school, having a career, raising a family, and staying healthy all become much harder goals to accomplish when you are struggling with an unmanaged medical disorder as severe as Narcolepsy with Cataplexy.

Many patients are too afraid to seek help because they are embarrassed or ashamed of their Cataplexy or situations that were a result of their disorder. Don’t be afraid; if you are struggling with this disorder, or think that you may exhibiting any of the symptoms listed below, seek medical help from a trusted health care provider.

Cataplexy and Narcolepsy Symptoms:

  •  Loss of Muscle Tone- Ranging From Moderate to Severe
  •  Sense of Weakness
  •  Drooping of the Eyelids
  •  Inability to Move, Speak, or Control Their Eyes but Still Conscious
  •  Emotional Triggers
  •  Arm Weakness
  •  Sagging Jaw
  •  Drooping of the Head
  •  Shoulders Slump Over
  •  Speech Becomes Slurred
  •  Vision Becomes Blurry
  •  Knees/Ankles Become Weak or Buckle
  •  Total Collapse

Cataplexy in Narcolepsy Patients can become extremely dangerous to the patients suffering from the rare disorder and the people closest to them. Undiagnosed Cataplexy has a high risk of developing from a mild, over looked disorder to a life-altering accident waiting to happen. If you are experiencing Cataplexy and Narcolepsy signs, or are in fear of developing the disorder, seek medical attention immediately. The sooner your Cataplexy is diagnosed, the sooner it can be treated and managed. Medical professionals, sleep study facilities, and Narcolepsy support groups are ideal resources for seeking Cataplexy information, help, and support.

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