Sleepiness is a normal sensation when you’re either tired or sleep-deprived. Excessive sleepiness, on the other hand, may be hinting at a more severe condition: narcolepsy. This is a neurological disorder that affects 1 in every 2,000 people in the United States and about 3 million people worldwide.
While the existence of narcolepsy is not new to the medical world, only 25 percent of narcolepsy patients are correctly diagnosed and receive treatment. Because of the wide gray area between the symptoms of narcolepsy and the symptoms of other neurological conditions, numerous cases of this illness are misdiagnosed.1
While the idea of increased sleepiness may not be alarming for other people, it is extremely dangerous when left undiagnosed, especially when this concerns people who operate heavy machinery or drive to and from work on a daily basis. Because of the heightened risk of harm, not just to the affected individual but other people as well, numerous states in the United States have passed laws that prohibit narcolepsy patients from driving.2
Narcolepsy Can Lead to Emotional Repercussions and Other Health Disorders
Unfortunately, the effects of living with narcolepsy do not end with the sleepiness, random sleep attacks and constant tiredness. Narcolepsy patients have shown a high susceptibility to falling into depression because of their lack of control. Narcolepsy may also affect social and professional relationships, lead to difficulty focusing and even impact a patient’s physical wellbeing and safety. These effects may contribute to the patient’s belief that they are slowly losing control of their own life.3
In a study, narcolepsy patients were observed to have a higher chance of developing social anxiety and suffering from panic attacks. This is a direct result of their inability to control falling asleep in public places or the feeling that they are losing their ability to control their own bodies.4
Other conditions that may simultaneously affect narcolepsy patients include post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and agoraphobia. Some patients are also affected by various digestive and cardiovascular diseases.5 Researchers have linked the occurrence of narcolepsy to autoimmunity as well, stating that there is a possibility that this condition is caused by the immune system’s attack on the brain cells that produce hypocretin, the peptide responsible for the regulation of a normal sleep cycle.6
Children and Pregnant Women May Be Affected Too
While narcolepsy often starts between the ages of 15 and 25, it has been diagnosed in children as young as 5 years old. Pediatric narcolepsy is noted to be harder to diagnose because young patients are usually accused of being either lazy or depressed.
An article about the misdiagnosis of pediatric narcolepsy even claims that 100 percent of pediatricians wrongly diagnose narcoleptic children with other neurologic or behavioral conditions. The lack of a clear diagnosis process for children leads to the challenges that impede the child’s development and his or her ability to adjust to school life, especially due to the difficulty to focus or even remember things.7
Narcolepsy in pregnant women should also be taken seriously because of the danger it may pose to both the mother and the child. Continuing narcolepsy medication during the pregnancy can lead to numerous negative effects on the unborn child. After childbirth, narcoleptic mothers may have difficulties caring for their child as well.