Cataplexy is a neurological disorder which causes people to lose muscle tone and strength for a brief period of time, usually in response to an emotional stimulus such as fear, anger, laughter, or surprise. This condition is often associated with narcolepsy, a serious sleep disorder, and is in fact considered one of the hallmark signs of narcolepsy, although cataplexy can occur independently as well. It is important to seek treatment for cataplexy, because it can be dangerous.
The extent of the loss of muscle strength in cataplexy varies. Some patients actually collapse, and their vital signs become so irregular that they are hard to detect. In other instances, people simply feel weak, and their jaws and limbs may go slack for a moment. When cataplexy is associated with daytime sleepiness, hallucinations, and problems with REM sleep, it is usually indicative of narcolepsy.
During an attack of cataplexy, it is common for the vision to become blurry, but other senses may remain intact. Most people, for example, can hear very well, and sense touch, although they may not be able to respond because their voices are slurred, or because their muscles have become effectively paralyzed for a moment. It is a good idea to be aware of this if you are around someone who suffers from cataplexy; during a collapse, speaking in a soothing tone and explaining what's going on may be greatly appreciated, even if the patient cannot express it.
Although “plexis” means “seizure” in Greek, cataplexy is not a seizure, and it isn't dangerous in and of itself. However, if an attack of cataplexy happens at an inopportune moment, such as while someone is driving, it can be a problem. Cataplexy can also cause social embarrassment, and it may make people hesitant to socialize and go out. The tendency to quash emotions may emerge in response to the realization that cataplexy is linked with extreme emotions, which can be psychologically unhealthy.
Several medications can be used to treat cataplexy, and this condition is usually treated separately from narcolepsy. Sometimes it may take several medications and dosage adjustments to find the right medicine for cataplexy, and while this may be frustrating, the increased freedom afterwards is well worth it, in the eyes of many patients. While undergoing treatment for cataplexy, it is common to be treated for narcolepsy as well, and sometimes narcolepsy treatment can cause an improvement in cataplexy symptoms.