Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Narcolepsy

Definition

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder. It causes bouts of sleep during the day. Sleep attacks can happen while you drive, talk, or work. They happen without control.

Causes ^

The cause isn’t known. It may be linked to problems with:

  • Certain genes
  • The immune system—it attacks certain cells in the brain

Risk Factors ^

Narcolepsy is most common in people:

  • Aged 10-20 years old
  • With a family history
  • With a history of certain strep infections

Symptoms ^

People often have at least 1 or more of:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS)—almost every day for at least 3 months
  • Daytime sleep attacks—can happen many times during the day without control
  • Muscles go limp without warning or you can’t move, even though you’re awake—cataplexy
  • Brief times when you can’t move while waking up or falling asleep
  • Vivid dreams that appear while waking up or falling asleep
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Problems with the sleep-wake cycle
  • Feeling tired

Strong feelings, such as laughter, fear, or stress, often cause cataplexy.

Brainstem—Area of Brain Related to Alertness
GM00010_97870_brainstem.jpg

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Diagnosis ^

You will be asked about your symptoms and health history. You may have:

  • A physical exam
  • Polysomnography—studies brain waves and how your body works while you're asleep
  • Multiple sleep latency test (MSLT)—to measure the degree of EDS you have
  • A questionnaire about your EDS

Treatment ^

Treating narcolepsy depends on the problems you have. Common methods are:

  • Medicines to help you:
    • Stay alert during the day
    • Manage your sleep cycle
    • With certain prior strep infections
  • Planning short naps throughout the day
  • Therapy to cope with issues of self esteem

Prevention ^

Narcolepsy can't be prevented since the cause is unknown.

RESOURCES:

Narcolepsy Network
https://narcolepsynetwork.org

National Sleep Foundation
https://sleepfoundation.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Better Sleep Council Canada
https://www.bettersleep.ca

Canadian Sleep Society
https://css-scs.ca

REFERENCES:

Bhat A, El Sohl AA. Management of narcolepsy. Expert Opin Pharmacotherapy. 2008;9(10):1721-1733.

Dauvilliers Y, Arnulf I, Mignot E. Narcolepsy with cataplexy. Lancet. 2007;369(9560):499-511.

Narcolepsy. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116132/Narcolepsy. Updated November 14, 2017. Accessed August 22, 2018.

Narcolepsy. National Sleep Foundation website. Available at: https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders-problems/narcolepsy-and-sleep. Accessed August 22, 2018.

Narcolepsy fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Narcolepsy-Fact-Sheet. Updated July 6, 2018. Accessed August 22, 2018.

Last reviewed June 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD  Last Updated: 8/22/2018