Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that makes you very sleepy, even if you had a good sleep the night before. You can be so sleepy that you have sudden attacks of falling asleep.
Narcolepsy affects about 1 out of every 2,000 people. Most people with narcolepsy haven’t been diagnosed and aren’t getting treatment.
What are the symptoms of narcolepsy?
Symptoms of narcolepsy include:
- feel sleepy during the day
- easily falling asleep throughout the day
- seeing, feeling, or hearing things that seem like a dream but aren’t real (called hallucinations) – This tends to happen as you're falling asleep or waking up in the morning.waking up in the morning.
- not being able to move close to the time you fall asleep or wake up (called sleep paralysis)
- sudden muscle weakness after an emotion (called cataplexy)
Cataplexy can happen after a strong emotion, like being very happy, surprised, or mad. It can also happen during laughing. With cataplexy, you lose your normal muscle tone (the amount of tightness in your muscles that hold you upright). This causes your knees to buckle, your head to drop, or your jaw to drop. In some cases, you may even fall down and not be able to move for a few seconds or minutes.
What causes narcolepsy?
We don’t know exactly what causes narcolepsy. But people with narcolepsy have low levels of hypocretin (also called orexin) in their bodies. This chemical helps you stay awake. It’s not known what leads to the loss of hypocretin, but research shows it may be linked to a problem with the immune system (called an autoimmune disorder).
How is narcolepsy diagnosed?
There are 2 tests to help diagnose narcolepsy.
Polysomnography (PSG) mesures how you sleep at night. This test is also called an overnight level 1 sleep study because you sleep overnight at a sleep lab.
PSG records the different parts of your sleep (called stages) and how well you sleep. This test can also find other sleep disorders that may be causing your symptoms. This test is more complete than other types of sleep tests that you do at home.
A multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) measures how long it takes you to fall asleep during the day. During this test, you'll be asked to take a 20 minute nap every 2 hours (about 4 to 5 naps within 8 hours). If you have a positive MSLT, it means you do fall asleep often during the day and may have narcolepsy.
What's the treatment for narcolepsy?
Treatment for narcolepsy depends on how bad your symptoms are. It can take weeks or months before you find the best treatment.
Taking medicine and making changes to your lifestyle are the 2 main ways to treat narcolepsy.
The type of medicines that are used to treat narcolepsy are central nervous system stimulants. These medicines help you stay awake during the day.
You may also take medicine that limits part of the sleep cycle called rapid eye movement or REM sleep. This medicine helps to treat cataplexy and other REM sleep symptoms.
Making lifestyle changes is an important way to treat narcolepsy.
Your healthcare provider will suggest you take regular naps during the day. This may be 2 or 3 naps for 10 to 15 minutes or 1 nap for 30 to 60 minutes. Scheduling naps will help you manage feeling sleepy during the day and keep you more alert when you’re awake. Taking daytime naps doesn’t replace the sleep you still need at night.
Managing your stress can also help you sleep better. Learn about stress management.
Your healthcare provider may talk to you about other lifestyle changes that will help you sleep better.