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What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden sleep attacks. This disorder is a chronic, life long illness that requires medical attention and treatment in most cases.

Who gets narcolepsy?

Over 200,000 people in the United States have narcolepsy but many go undiagnosed. Men and women of all ages can be troubled by this disorder with symptoms usually present in adolescence or as a young adult.

What are the symptoms?

People with narcolepsy may experience overwhelming sleepiness and uncontrollable sleep attacks during mundane situations, such as; reading, watching television, driving, sitting in a meeting, or in a classroom. Narcoleptics also experience fragmented or disrupted sleep during the night that causes frequent awakenings. Some other key symptoms of narcolepsy are:

  • Cataplexy: sudden muscle weakness or loss of muscle tone (atonia) precipitated by a strong emotion such as surprise, laughter, anger, or fear. This loss of muscle tone can range from weakness in the face, neck, or knees to complete collapse.
  • Hypnagogic/hypnopompic hallucinations: intense and vivid dream-like or perceptual experiences that occur at the onset of sleep (hypnagogic) or the offset of sleep (hypnopompic). These hallucinations often depict frightening situations that cause fear, such as being chased, attacked, or trapped. Although these hallucinations are common to most narcoleptics, up to 15% of non-narcoleptic people experience this as well.
  • Sleep paralysis: momentary inability to move or speak upon falling to sleep or waking up. This experience usually has a short duration of several minutes and may accompany hypnogogic/hypnopompic hallucinations. Although sleep paralysis is common to most narcoleptics, up to 15% on non-narcoleptic people experience this as well.
  • Automatic behavior: lapses of memory involving tasks. A person performs a task but is unable to recount the details.
  • Diagnosis of narcolepsy includes an evaluation by a physician and a visit to the sleep laboratory for testing. The two sleep studies used to help diagnose this disorder include the Polysomnogram (PSG) and a Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT). The PSG is a procedure that involves staying overnight in the sleep lab while having your sleep observed and recorded by a Technician. The MSLT is somewhat similar to the PSG but occurs in the daytime and involves several short naps.

What is the cause and treatment?

This disorder has no known cause but may be hereditary. Although there is no cure for Narcolepsy, it can be managed through good sleep hygiene habits and medication. There are many narcoleptics that lead normal lives with the right treatment and medical supervision.

Where can I find more information on narcolepsy?

American Sleep Disorders Association

6301 Bandel Road #101
Rochester, MN 55901

Narcolepsy Network

277 Fairfield Road
#310 B Fairfield, NJ 07004
(973) 276-0115

National Sleep Foundation

729 Fifteenth Street NW
Fourth Floor
Washington, DC 20005