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Cataplexy is rare neurological disorder that affects less than 5 in 10,000 people. While this disorder normally occurs in 70 percent of patients with narcolepsy it has also been diagnosed independently. Symptoms include the loss of muscle control and tone for short periods, often brought about by intense emotions such as laughter, fear or surprise. The severity of a cataleptic episodes ranges from simple weakness and fatigue to complete collapse.

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In some cases, only small muscle groups such as those controlling facial movement are affected. Less frequently, the entire body is involved. Loss of vision and the ability to speak coherently may also occur, though hearing and awareness are not impaired. Patients with cataplexy report side effects such as depression, anxiety, embarrassment, and an overall decrease in their quality of life.

Proper Diagnostic Procedures

As with any other neurological problem, cataplexy must be identified through careful and methodical diagnostic procedures. Most major hospital systems have sleep disorder clinics, where patients may be thoroughly tested and their symptoms sorted and identified. Because cataplexy occurs in a majority of patients with narcolepsy, a patient should first be tested for that condition. Other seizure disorders that mimic cataplexy such as epilepsy, syncope and transient ischemic attacks can be identified or eliminated by thorough sleep studies, brain scans and other less invasive neurological tests. Once diagnosed, cataplexy is usually treated with a range of medications that is different than those used for narcolepsy and other neurological disorders. Thus, a correct diagnosis is critical for relief of symptoms.

Dangers of Treatment Delay and Misdiagnosis

Stressful situations are common in everyday life, and stress is one of the primary triggers for cataplexy. A missed diagnosis leaves a patient open to danger on a daily basis. Though it is not a life-threatening condition by itself, an attack can cause a fatal accident or injury. Like narcolepsy, attacks may occur without warning while a patient is climbing stairs, operating heavy machinery, holding a baby or driving a car.

In all of these cases, the risk of injury is very high and can leave the patient open to legal action from other injured parties. Additionally, if a wrong diagnosis is made, the wrong anti-seizure medication may be prescribed, causing further complications and needless side effects without addressing the real problem. If cataplexy is misdiagnosed as severe epilepsy, invasive procedures including surgery may be mistakenly recommended.