ALL
Facebook Tweet Email Share

Main Content

Sleep Problems

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a serious sleep disorder. It affects about 1 out of every 2,000 people. Most people with narcolepsy haven’t been diagnosed, which means they aren’t being treated. People with narcolepsy always feel sleepy and tired.

What are the symptoms of narcolepsy?

You may have narcolepsy if you:

  • feel sleepy (e.g., nod off repeatedly) during the day
  • see, feel, or hear things that feel like a dream, but aren’t real (hallucinations) as you're falling asleep or waking up in the morning. This can be very hard to deal with because the dreams seem very intense, but they're not real.
  • have sleep paralysis, which means you suddenly can’t move for a few minutes. This happens most often when you fall asleep or wake up.
  • have sudden muscle weakness triggered by emotions (cataplexy). Typically, the knees buckle and may even give out when a person laughs or is very happy, surprised, or mad. In other cataplectic attacks, the head may drop or the jaw gets slack. In very bad cases, the person might fall down and be completely paralyzed for a few seconds or even minutes.

What causes narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is likely caused by a problem with the immune system (autoimmune disorder). It causes the brain to lose an important chemical (hypocretin/orexin) that people need to stay awake.

How is narcolepsy diagnosed?

You'll need a test done called a polysomnography (PSG) to make sure you don’t have another type of sleep disorder. A PSG is an overnight sleep study in the hospital that records your stages of sleep and how well you sleep.

After the PSG, you'll need a multiple sleep latency test (MSLT). During this test, you'll have a 20 minute nap every 2 hours (normally 4 to 5 naps during an 8 hour day). If you have a positive MSLT and other symptoms, you may have narcolepsy.

What's the treatment for narcolepsy?

There are many treatments for narcolepsy. Everyone’s treatment is different and depends on how bad their symptoms are. It can take weeks or months to find the best treatment for you.

Medicine is used to treat sleepiness and cataplexy, but lifestyle changes are also important. The main treatments for excessive daytime sleepiness are types of medicine called central nervous system stimulants. For cataplexy and other REM sleep symptoms, medicine that stops REM sleep may be given.

Another important part of treatment is scheduling 10 to 15-minute naps, 2 to 3 times a day. This will help control really bad daytime sleepiness and help you stay as alert as you can. Daytime naps don’t replace your need to sleep at night.​

Current as of: March 2, 2018

Author: Sleep Health, Alberta Health Services