Narcolepsy is a disorder of the nervous system. It results in frequent, involuntary episodes of sleep during the day. Sleep attacks can occur while you drive, talk, or work.
The cause is unknown. It is thought to have a genetic link. There is increasing evidence that it may be an autoimmune disorder. In this type of disorder, the body’s own immune system attacks a part of the brain.
Having family members with narcolepsy is a risk factor for the condition.
Symptoms usually start during the teenage years. Onset may range from 5-50 years old. Symptoms may worsen with age. They may improve in women after
Symptoms include: Excessive daytime sleepinessDaytime involuntary sleep attacksUnrefreshing sleepSudden loss of muscle tone without loss of consciousnessTemporary paralysis while awakening or falling asleepFrightening mental images that appear while awakening or as one falls asleepMemory problems
Symptoms may be triggered by:
A monotonous environmentA warm environmentEating a large mealStrong emotions
Brainstem—Area of Brain Related to Alertness
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You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. If narcolepsy is suspected, you may be referred to a specialist in sleep disorders.
Tests may include: Multiple sleep latency test (MSLT)—measures the onset of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which occurs earlier than normal in narcolepsy
General sleep lab study—often done the night before an MSLT; helps to rule out other causes of daytime sleepiness by monitoring:
Brain wavesEye movementsMuscle activityRespirationHeart beatBlood oxygen levelsTotal nighttime sleepAmount of nighttime REM sleepTime of onset of REM sleepDegree of daytime sleepinessA questionnaire regarding your degree of daytime sleepiness
Treatment may include: Stimulant medications that increase levels of daytime alertnessAntidepressants to help treat symptoms of narcolepsy
Other treatment options include: Planned short naps throughout the dayCounseling
to cope with issues of self esteem
Wearing medical alert jewelry
There are no guidelines to prevent narcolepsy. But, you can try to prevent symptoms by: Exercising on a regular basisGetting enough sleep at night
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Narcolepsy fact sheet. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health
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Updated April 2016. Accessed June 20, 2016.
Narcolepsy: new understanding of irresistible sleep.
Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2001.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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