What is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that can cause a person to have difficulty staying awake during the daytime hours. In extreme cases, narcolepsy can cause a person to suddenly fall asleep during the day. These “sleep attacks” can occur even after getting enough sleep at night.

Doctors will base a diagnosis of narcolepsy on the patient’s symptoms, family history of narcolepsy, physical exam, and test results. Specific sleep tests may require the patient to visit a sleep disorders center for an overnight evaluation. The overnight evaluations are often followed by a daytime sleep test in which the patient will have a series of observed nap periods.

Who is at Risk for Narcolepsy?

Typically, narcolepsy first occurs between the ages of 15 and 30 and affects both men and women. The symptoms can start suddenly or appear gradually. The condition is difficult to diagnose without medical tests. Often people live with mild symptoms, such as daytime sleepiness and muscle weakness, for several years before narcolepsy is diagnosed. Narcolepsy can also develop later in life or in children, but it is rare before age five.

Factors that may increase the risk of developing narcolepsy include having:

  • A sibling or parent with narcolepsy
  • Orexin/Hypocretin deficiency
  • Having an autoimmune disorder

Effects of Narcolepsy

Individuals with narcolepsy often fall asleep without warning and, at inappropriate times. Sleep attacks don't just happen during quiet times, such as when reading or watching TV. These sleep attacks can occur during driving, eating, or other activities. These attacks can cause:

  • Accidents and injuries
  • Problems at work or at school
  • Social problems
  • Impaired memory, thinking, or ability to concentrate
  • Depression

A sleep specialist may recommend special sleep tests to properly diagnose narcolepsy. During the testing, the sleep specialist will confirm a diagnosis of narcolepsy, diagnose another sleep disorder, or rule out a specific sleep disorder as the cause of your symptoms, based on:

  • The results of your sleep tests
  • Your symptoms
  • Your sleep habits as recorded in a sleep diary

Narcolepsy is easier to diagnose if you have more symptoms than just daytime sleepiness and sleep attacks.

Living with Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a lifelong condition. Although there is no cure for this condition, symptoms often improve with ongoing treatment. Most people with narcolepsy can live near-normal lives. The condition can be dangerous if sleep attacks or sudden loss of muscle tone occur while driving or using machinery. Even when these episodes occur at other times, they can cause injury or impair performance in school and on the job. To help avoid harm, try to: Avoid being alone when you are likely to have a sleep attack. Take a nap before those times during the day when an attack is likely. Safeguard your home and workspace. Seek help from family, friends, coworkers, and your doctor. If applicable, take your narcolepsy medicine as recommended.