The Sleep of Death

Someone asked me if there was a difference between necrolepsy and narcolepsy. Well, quite a bit!

Necrolepsy is a disorder marked by sudden, uncontrollable death, causing an individual to die at inappropriate times. This used to be a term favored in the 18th and 19th century to account for all causes of sudden death; but as medical science advanced, many of these causes could be explained. Some examples of sudden death includes ventricular fibrillation (incessant super-rapid beating of the heart causing ineffective pumping action) and intracranial hemorrhage (bursting of the blood vessels in the brain). For all intents and purposes, the term necrolepsy is truly dead and gone nowadays..

SLEEP and his half-brother DEATH, 1874 painting by Waterhouse(1849-1917)

Narcolepsy, on the other hand, is an interesting form of chronic sleep disturbance which manifests in several ways. Heard of friends who tell you they wake up after extended daytime sleeping but are unable to move their arms and legs for a few minutes despite maximal effort? Known in medical circles as sleep paralysis, this can be frightening to the sufferer (some panic and feel like death is imminent – the sleep of death)) but is rarely dangerous. Another rather common manifestation are those people who suddenly fall unconscious after a fit of laughter or anger (cataplexy). Again frightening, but rarely serious.

Graphic Art about Sleep Paralysis - unable to talk or move but fully alert.

A common symptom which many encounter is automatic behaviour, where the person continues to do everyday activity like talking and walking (some doctors consider sleepwalking a variation of this) while fast asleep! Frequently, they will wake up and have no recollection of what they did. Why, some have literally got away with murder – a case in point is Steven Steinberg, who in 1981, stabbed his wife to death while sleepwalking but was acquitted.

Another common symptom of narcolepsy is  vivid, often frightening, dreamlike experiences that occur while dozing, falling asleep and/or while awakening (hypnagogic hallucinations).

Frightening as they may seem, sufferers are not generally classified as having a life-threatening condition, and consequently research and treatment is relegated below others, like cancer and heart disease.

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3 responses

  1. Hey Doc,
    After reading your post, I realised I have had sleep paralysis for some time now! Used to get it after sleeping for long periods during the day (oversleep) but as work got heavier and sleep became a luxury, this disappeared.
    Agree with you that it is frightening to experience this but glad to know its harmless!

  2. I really like this blog. Please continue the great work. Regards!!!

  3. It was interesting. You seem very expert in your field.

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