Imagine living in fear of the one thing everyone wants - those moments of happiness. For the unlucky few cursed with a rare sleep disorder, one fleeting blissful thought is all it takes to launch a paralyzing attack.
At first the muscles start to full heavy, then the head begins to fall forward and the body falls to the ground. The victim remains lucid the entire time. Just one bad fall could result in serious injury or death.
The disorder is a form of narcolepsy. A unique symptom called cataplexy causes a sudden loss in muscle tone while awake. Episodes of cataplexy tend to be triggered by a strong emotions, usually happiness, laughter or surprise.
Only .02 percent of adults in the world have narcolepsy with cataplexy. The cause is still under debate. Some researchers believe the brain somehow confuses wakefulness with REM sleep. The signal that causes the body to go limp in REM sleep is sent while a person is fully awake.
Listeners of the radio show “This American Life” should be familiar with the disorder. A recent episode told the story of a man who has narcolepsy with cataplexy in a segment titled “I've Fallen in Love and I Can't Get Up.”
The subject of the story Matt can’t tell his wife he loves her without having an attack. He can’t see his grandchild, he can’t look at puppies, he can’t even think about a photograph he’s never actually seen.
When he communicates, he has to talk slowly and never get too excited or enthusiastic. In his own words, Matt has to act like a robot.
Narcolepsy with cataplexy has no cure, so patients have to change their behavior and avoid emotion-causing stimuli. Doctors often prescribe stimulants to treat the daytime sleepiness symptoms. Antidepressents combined with the drug GHB, or Xyrem, can reduce and delay, but not eliminate cataplexy.
In a BBC segment, a home video begins with another man with narcolepsy with cataplexy collapsed at the foot of a staircase. He complains of regularly feeling trapped in his body while police or emergency workers treat him thinking he’s unconscious from another accident.
Humans aren’t the only species who can have narcolepsy. Some dogs also collapse from cataplexy.
Read more about narcolepsy at sleepeducation.com.