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

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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.