My “Stress Symptoms” Turned Out to Be Narcolepsy

Imagine that at school or your job—or even driving down the highway—you’re struggling to keep your eyes open. That described daily life of Jessica Scaggs, 27, a high school English teacher in Atlanta, GA. Beginning in her senior year of high school, Scaggs began to notice sleepy symptoms and troubling muscle weakness—but it took several doctors’ visits and tests to find out what was truly wrong: Narcolepsy. Here are the narcolepsy symptoms and treatments you need to know about.

Though her symptoms were concerning, Scaggs brushed them off: “I attributed them to the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury I sustained earlier that year,” she says. “I saw a doctor, but I was in the process of treating the other injuries from my accident, so those took precedence. It wasn’t until many years later, when the sleepiness and muscle weakness persisted well after the other injuries had healed, that I began to wonder if something else was going on.”

When her exhaustion worsened in college—she was sleeping for most of the day after her morning classes—she knew she needed to seek help. Her muscle weakness had increased to the point that she had collapsed in the middle of the street. Initially, her doctors focused on Scagg’s loss of strength—partly because she never mentioned her exhaustion. (Scaggs assumed it was a normal part of college life.)

It was only when Scaggs began her first year of teaching that she knew something was terribly wrong. She tells Reader’s Digest, “I started feeling drowsy at the wheel during my first year teaching. That terrified me. As soon as I mentioned the uncontrollable sleepiness to my primary care physician, she immediately connected it to my history of muscle weakness and referred me to a sleep specialist to test for narcolepsy.” This sleep disorder not only leads to excessive daytime sleepiness, but it also can cause muscle weakness. An estimated three million people worldwide have it—learn what it’s really like to have narcolepsy.

After sleep tests that included a measure of how fast she could fall asleep during the day (called a multiple sleep latency test), her doctors confirmed a diagnosis of narcolepsy with cataplexy (muscle weakness that can be triggered by strong emotion, such as laughter or excitement). “I was relieved to finally have an answer, but some quick research revealed to me that little is understood still about narcolepsy and that there is no cure. That was disheartening to me and took a long time for me to accept.”

Today, Scaggs manages her symptoms with medication, though she still requires more sleep than the average person. “Even with treatment, I find that maintaining my career takes everything out of me. I’ve been unable to maintain the social relationships that I’d like to for myself. I’m lucky to have an incredibly supportive boyfriend who was with me through the diagnosis process, but I know that it’s difficult for him at times when I spend so much of my life needing to sleep.”

Scaggs strongly advises that people get daytime grogginess checked out: “Don’t simply accept this kind of debilitating sleepiness as normal for a busy person. One of the best websites out there for learning more about narcolepsy symptoms is KnowNarcolepsy.com, which has been immensely helpful for me in learning more about the condition and hearing from others with narcolepsy like myself.” Next, don’t miss the 12 sleep disorders everyone should know about.

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