Cataplexy | Tuft & Needle

There are a lot of sleep disorders out there that interfere with our night life—but what about sleep disorders that actually rear their ugly heads during the daytime? 

What is Cataplexy

Cataplexy is a complex medical condition most commonly associated with narcolepsy—an uncommon sleep disorder that affects between 135,000 and 200,000 people in the US. Cataplexy is a sudden loss of muscle tone typically connected to strong emotions or often laughter. It can present in a range of symptoms, from mild drooping of facial muscles to a full body collapse. 

An episode occurs during waking hours, and temporarily paralyzes the individual for less than two minutes. It often occurs after strong positive emotions—laughter, excitement, and extreme happiness can cause an episode. The condition is also strongly correlated with fatigue, sleepiness, and other sleep disorders. 

Often cataplexy is misdiagnosed as a seizure disorder, but they impact the brain and body in very different ways.


Who Gets Cataplexy?

As with many strange disorders, the exact cause of cataplexy is unknown, but there are a few promising theories. Some researched believe that cataplexy is the state of paralysis our bodies enter in REM sleep, slipping into our daytime routines. We experience a sudden burst of emotion, and then a neuron misfires and you’re on the floor. 

It’s possible that narcolepsy and cataplexy are actually autoimmune disorders, as people who suffer from the events often have variations in their T-cell receptors that are similar to those with dysfunctional immune systems. 

Cataplectic episodes vary greatly amongst those who experience symptoms, but typically those with the condition average one episode a week. 

What are Cataplexy Symptoms?

Like with many sleep disorders, the symptoms of cataplexy vary pretty widely. Symptoms can be hardly noticeable, like a small muscle twitch, or can leave you on the floor. Typically, these symptoms begin to surface in childhood.

Symptoms of Cataplexy:

- Facial twitching or drooping eyelids

- Unusual tongue movements

- Jaw tremors

- Difficulty with speech

- Dropping your head to one side

- Weakness in knees

- Buckling

- Trembling

Usually an episode passes quickly and does not require any medical intervention, but if symptoms are more severe, they could cause collapsing. If someone has an episode while you’re with them, make sure they don’t have any dangerous objects in their hands (a knife while making dinner, for example) or won’t fall and hit their head. 

What are the Cataplexy Treatments?

While there is no cure for cataplexy, it’s clear that better sleep can help prevent severe episodes. Getting at least 7-9 hours per night of quality sleep will help manage symptoms, but always speak with your doctor about other treatment options. Certain antidepressants and sodium oxybate have been shown to help treat and manage cataplexy symptoms.

These treatments work well for some, but always consult a medical professional when seeking treatment for any condition. 

Cataplexy, though uncommon, is a fairly mild condition that tends to pair with narcolepsy and with good sleep hygiene and sometimes medical adjustments, it’s a fairly manageable disorder. Research is always being done to improve treatment options and understand sleep disorders, read more about sleep disorders here. 

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Shelly Weaver-Cather
Shelly Weaver-Cather

Shelly Weaver is part of the Content Team at Tuft & Needle, leading the writing and editing of our blog. Not quite a Phoenix native, (They take that sort of thing super seriously.) Shelly has spent most of her life in the Phoenix Metro area and has no plans of leaving anytime soon. She made the unexpected jump out of wedding photography and onto T&N’s team in 2016, and found a passion for the people that keep the lights on. She still finds herself shooting in her free time, though these days there are less bridal portraits and more masterpieces of her first child, Duke, a lab-pit mix with an unparalleled love for both T&N mattress hogging and couch destroying.

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