Narcolepsy vs. sleep apnea: Similarities and differences

Narcolepsy and sleep apnea are conditions that can cause someone to feel tired while awake. However, their symptoms, causes, and treatments vary widely.

Narcolepsy is a rare condition that causes bouts of severe drowsiness that can occur at any time. Some people also experience a sudden loss of muscle tone known as cataplexy.

In contrast, sleep apnea is a common condition that causes a person’s breathing to stop and start again during sleep. It can lead to fatigue due to poor sleep quality.

This article looks at the differences between narcolepsy and sleep apnea, the connection between these sleep disorders, and how doctors diagnose them.

Sleep apnea is a common condition that causes a person’s breathing to temporarily stop or become very shallow during sleep. Doctors call these instances “breath pauses,” and they can last from a few seconds to a few minutes.

People with sleep apnea have frequent pauses in breathing that can occur 30 or more times an hour. There are different types of sleep apnea, including:

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): This is the most common form of sleep apnea and occurs due to a blockage in the upper airway.
  • Central sleep apnea: This condition occurs when the brain does not send the signals necessary for breathing.
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome: This is a mixture of obstructive and central sleep apnea.

Narcolepsy is a neurological condition that affects the brain’s ability to control its sleep-wake cycle. This can cause people to involuntarily and suddenly fall asleep during waking hours, even when engaging in activities that require concentration, such as working. B. Driving a car.

It is also together for someone with narcolepsy experiencing disrupted sleep due to vivid dreams, hallucinations, or sleep paralysis.

There are two types of narcolepsy: type 1 and type 2. Type 1 occurs with cataplexy, which is a loss of muscle tone. Cataplexy causes part or all of the body to become limp. Type 2 occurs without cataplexy.

Narcolepsy symptoms typically begin in childhood or young adulthood, but they can begin at any point in life. Many researchers believe that the condition is often underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

The table below compares the symptoms of sleep apnea to those of narcolepsy:

In children is sleep apnea also connected with bedwetting, worsening asthma and problems related to school performance.

Research suggests that OSA is common in people with narcolepsy. an older one Study 2010 found that out of 133 people with narcolepsy, 33 people – nearly 25% – also had sleep apnea symptoms.

However, sleep apnea does not cause narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a neurological condition that occurs when the brain fails to regulate its sleep-wake cycle.

Doctors aren’t sure why sleep apnea is common in people with narcolepsy, but it may be related to other sleep disorders that people with narcolepsy commonly have.

People with type 1 narcolepsy have low levels of a hormone known as hypocretin. Hypocretin makes a person feel awake and regulates REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. A deficiency in this hormone leads to excessive drowsiness during waking hours and irregular sleep cycles that cause symptoms such as vivid dreams.

Doctors aren’t sure why some people have low hypocretin levels, but several factors may play a role:

  • autoimmune disease: People with type 1 narcolepsy often have autoimmune disorders, in which the immune system attacks healthy cells. Researchers believe the immune system can also attack the cells that make hypocretin, leading to a deficiency.
  • family history: In most cases, narcolepsy is not linked to a family history of the condition. However, about 10% of people report having a family member who also has narcolepsy symptoms. This suggests that in some cases a genetic component might be present.
  • Brain Injury or Disease: Rarely, narcolepsy develops after an injury damages an area of ​​the brain that regulates sleep or as a result of another disorder affecting the brain, such as a brain disorder. B. a tumor.

People with type 2 narcolepsy usually have normal levels of hypocretin. Researchers have yet to figure out what causes this condition.

There are many reasons a person may experience excessive fatigue during the waking hours. Other factors that may contribute to this symptom contain:

  • too less sleep
  • insomnia
  • hypothyroidism
  • depression
  • traumatic brain injury
  • certain medications such as antihistamines, antidepressants, and beta-blockers
  • other sleep disorders such as B. circadian rhythm disorders

Some more serious medical conditions can also cause excessive sleepiness, such as: B. Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. However, these usually produce other symptoms as well.

A doctor can diagnose the cause of excessive sleepiness, frequent waking up during the night, and other symptoms that may indicate sleep apnea or narcolepsy. You begin the diagnostic process by:

  • Conducting a physical exam
  • anamnesis
  • Ask the person to keep a sleep diary to record their symptoms

Sleep studies, however, are the primary method that doctors use to diagnose sleep apnea. A person sleeps overnight in a health center where professionals observe them and record the number of breath stops in an hour. The doctors will also check whether the oxygen content in the blood changes.

If a doctor suspects narcolepsy, they may recommend a combination of a polysomnography (PSG) and multiple sleep latency test (MSLT).

A PSG is a type of sleep study that tracks breathing, eye movements, brain activity, and muscle movements during sleep. It can detect signs of narcolepsy and other conditions that can affect sleep, including sleep apnea.

An MSLT typically occurs the morning after the PSG. The person will take a nap Every 2 hours until they have taken a total of five naps. This test allows doctors to measure how quickly someone falls asleep and determine if they are entering REM sleep.

Sometimes doctors also do a spinal tap to test the levels of hypocretin in a person’s cerebrospinal fluid.

Doctors use a range of treatments to treat these sleep disorders.

Treatment of sleep apnea

The possible treatments for OSA include:

  • Lifestyle changes such as For example, quitting smoking or maintaining a moderate weight
  • respirators
  • mouthpieces
  • Surgery if OSA is due to enlarged tonsils or adenoids

The ventilator that doctors mostly A CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) machine is recommended. These devices blow compressed air down the person’s throat to prevent the airway from collapsing.

Sleep apnea mouthpieces hold the lower jaw forward far enough to keep the airway open. If OSA treatment doesn’t help, it could be a sign someone has another type of sleep apnea, another sleep disorder, or a condition like narcolepsy.

Treatment of narcolepsy

There is no cure for narcolepsy, but medication can help control excessive sleepiness and cataplexy in most people. A doctor may prescribe:

  • Modafinil (Provigil)
  • Amphetamine-like stimulants
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
  • noradrenergic reuptake inhibitors

A person may also need to make lifestyle adjustments, such as B. Avoiding caffeine before bed, taking short naps, exercising daily, and following a regular sleep schedule can all help alleviate their symptoms.

Both sleep apnea and narcolepsy cause daytime sleepiness. However, sleep apnea causes fatigue due to disrupted sleep caused by frequent pauses in breathing. People with this condition often snore, make wheezing or choking noises during sleep, or wake up with a dry mouth.

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that causes severe drowsiness that can cause someone to suddenly fall asleep during daily activities. It can also lead to insomnia, vivid dreams, sleep paralysis, and hallucinations. It’s possible for someone to have both sleep apnea and narcolepsy, but sleep apnea alone is far more common.

People who are concerned about their symptoms should see a doctor for a diagnosis, especially if excessive sleepiness is affecting either their mental health or activities that could be dangerous, such as walking. B. Driving a car.


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