Narcolepsy is a lifelong neurological illness, primarily characterized by sudden uncontrollable sleep attacks and persistent daytime sleepiness. It is considered a primary hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness) condition. Primary means the condition is not caused by another disease.
There are different levels of severity. Some with this disorder may have mild sleepiness or rare cataplexy (less than once per week). Others may have moderate sleepiness or infrequent cataplexy (less than daily). Yet others may experience severe sleepiness or severe cataplexy (daily). Cataplexy is a temporary and sudden muscle weakness usually brought on by strong emotions.
Symptoms of narcolepsy include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness, with frequent daily sleep attacks or a need to take several naps during the day
- Temporary and sudden muscle weakness (cataplexy) usually brought on by strong emotions
- Sleep paralysis (atonia) that usually occurs between wakefulness and sleep
- Dreamlike states between waking and sleeping (hypnagogic hallucinations)
- Automatic behaviors (like driving home and not remembering how you got there), often called microsleep episodes
- Disrupted major sleep episode (disruption of the longest sleep episode that occurs on a daily basis)
Many people with narcolepsy experience periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). In PLMD, the leg muscles contract every 20 to 40 seconds during sleep.
Narcolepsy Risk Factors
The exact cause of narcolepsy is unknown. Recently scientists have identified a genetic marker for this disease confirming that narcolepsy may be hereditary. A child with a parent having narcolepsy has 1 chance in 20 of being affected.
Narcolepsy affects more than 500,000 Americans and symptoms may arise as early as the onset of puberty and continue throughout life.
Narcolepsy itself is not life threatening however patients with the condition are at a high risk for accidents. Due to the excessive sleepiness, narcoleptics may fall asleep in very dangerous situations, such as while driving.
A diagnosis of narcolepsy often relies on the patient’s description of symptoms. If the symptoms described indicate a possible sleep disorder, your physician may refer you to a sleep specialist at an accredited sleep center. There, you may have blood tests or other exams to rule out conditions that cause similar symptoms. Exams may include:
- Questionnaires (e.g. the Epworth Sleepiness Scale)
- Multiple sleep latency test (a machine that measures the time it takes to fall asleep lying in a quiet room during the day)
- Overnight sleep study (polysomnography)
The treatment for narcolepsy focuses on lifestyle changes and medication to improve alertness.
Lifestyle treatment may include taking 3 or more scheduled naps throughout the day. People with narcolepsy should avoid heavy meals and alcohol, which can interfere with sleep.
Medications for narcolepsy target the major symptoms of sleepiness and cataplexy.
Wake Forest Baptist Sleep Disorders Center
The Wake Forest Baptist Sleep Disorders Center is accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Our multidisciplinary team is made up of board-certified sleep specialists from neurology, pulmonary disease and pediatrics. Our team of sleep experts performs sleep studies and multiple sleep latency tests (MSLT), and provides education, advice and assistance to patients and referring physicians regarding the latest testing and treatments available for all types of sleep disorders.