For most adults, a normal night’s sleep lasts around eight hours and is composed of between four and six sleep cycles. Characterized by NREM (non rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement) periods, it takes the average person about 80 to 100 minutes to begin the REM, or deep sleep, portion of the cycle.
Not so for those who are living with narcolepsy – narcoleptic patients take just a few minutes to enter REM sleep and have no control over when it happens. Many involuntarily fall asleep at work or school, in the middle of a conversation or while driving, experiencing these sudden sleep episodes for a few minutes at a time. It can be an exceedingly dangerous and disruptive disorder, and many patients find it difficult to cope with the illness.
Many patients find the difficulties associated with narcolepsy so overwhelming that they abuse drugs and alcohol to deal with the frustrations they experience in everyday life. Some adopt the use of stimulant drugs in the hopes that it will help them overcome the sleep episodes that occur randomly throughout the day. Still others are prescribed medications to treat the disorder that are addictive. In all of these cases, a co-occurring addiction issue is a possibility, and the risks associated with drug and alcohol abuse often serve to exacerbate the problems caused by narcolepsy.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) report that narcolepsy disorder can cause any one or combination of the following issues in patients:
- Cataplexy. Cataplexy is defined by a sudden and involuntary loss of muscle tone that occurs while the patient is awake. This muscle weakness can impact the entire body, specific limbs or certain areas of the body. It can last for a few seconds, or it can last for a few minutes.
- Disrupted nighttime sleep. When trying to sleep for eight hours at night, many with narcolepsy wake up repeatedly.
- Sleep paralysis. These bouts usually last only a few minutes but can make it impossible for the patient to move or talk. They usually occur in the period of waking or falling asleep.
- Excessive sleepiness during the day. Likely due in part to the fact that patients are unable to get a good night’s sleep, they may often feel overly tired throughout the day – an issue that can make it difficult for them to function even when they are not experiencing a narcoleptic sleep episode.
- Vivid dreaming. These hallucinations can happen when the patient is waking up or falling asleep and can be very intense.
Narcolepsy Disorder: Facts and Figures
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the following is true about narcolepsy and the people who are living with the disorder:
- Narcolepsy strikes men and women in equal numbers.
- Narcolepsy diagnoses are not isolated to any one area, region, country or continent.
- The disorder is a lifelong and chronic condition.
- An estimated 1 in 3,000 Americans is diagnosed with narcolepsy defined by cataplexy.
- Narcolepsy may be treated with addictive stimulant drugs like methylphenidate (Ritalin) during the day to help the patient wake up or strong sedatives at night to help them sleep more soundly. Both can trigger addiction issues in those who are susceptible.
Dual Diagnosis Rehab
When narcolepsy or other sleep disorders are an issue and the prescribed medication turns into a prescription for addiction, it’s important to seek treatment from a program that is designed specifically to meet the needs of patients living with more than one disorder. Call now for more information about the types of treatment programs that are best for your loved one.
Further Reading About Narcolepsy Disorder
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton