What is Narcolepsy?

Imagine falling asleep in the middle of a meeting or a conversation with a friend. While that might seem strange or hard to believe, for people with narcolepsy, it can be a reality. Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that can result in unwillingly falling asleep during activities, such as eating, working or even driving.

In order to understand more about narcolepsy, it’s helpful to learn a little bit about normal sleep stages of sleep. When you first fall asleep, you usually enter a stage called non-rapid eye movement (NREM). NREM is divided further into three stages.

During stage one, you’re just starting to fall asleep. It’s usually during this stage when you might experience hypnic jerks. Hypnic jerks are sudden “jumps” that may occur occasionally when you’re falling asleep. As you move to stage two and three of NREM, your brain waves slow and you’re progressing into deeper sleep.

During the night, you eventually progress into to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Dreaming usually occurs in this stage of sleep. What can happen to people with narcolepsy is they enter REM sleep without gradually going through the first stages of sleep.

Narcolepsy Symptoms

Narcolepsy symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, sudden bouts of sleep regardless of the circumstance and sleep paralysis. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, about two-thirds of people with the disorder also experience an abrupt, temporary loss of muscle control. The loss of muscle tone, which is referred to as cataplexy, may be triggered by intense emotions, such as anger, surprise or laughing.

Another possible symptom is unusually vivid dreams. The dreams occur either as the person is falling asleep or as they are waking up. What makes the dreams particularly frightening is since the person is in a semi-wake state, the dreams seem real.

Although most people may not be familiar with narcolepsy, the condition is not as rare as you might think. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, about one in every 3000 people in the United States have the condition, although it’s often underdiagnosed.

Symptoms tend to start in childhood or the teen years, but the disorder can also develop later in adulthood. It’s not surprising that the narcolepsy can interfere with daily activities and make work and school challenging. People with narcolepsy can also have additional sleep disorders, such as restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea, which creates even more problems sleeping.

Cause of Narcolepsy

Researchers have not identified the root cause of narcolepsy. But according to the Mayo Clinic, studies have indicated that people with narcolepsy with cataplexy tend to have low levels hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a role in wakefulness.brain image

But levels of hypocretin may not tell the entire story. There may also be a genetic component. People with a family history of the condition have a higher risk of developing the disorder. Although more research is needed, narcolepsy may occur due a combination of genetics and an environmental trigger, such as an illness, trauma or intense stress.

Diagnosis of Narcolepsy

Several elements go into making a diagnosis of narcolepsy. For example, an extensive medical history and symptom review needs to be completed. A physical exam will also be performed to rule out other causes of symptoms. Patients may be asked to keep a sleep journal to help their doctor identify when

sleep study data

symptoms are occurring. Sleep studies including a polysomnogram and a multiple sleep latency test are also used to make a diagnosis.

Treatment of Narcolepsy

Although there is currently no cure for narcolepsy, there are a few narcolepsy treatments. For example, medications may be prescribed to decrease symptoms, such as excessive sleepiness and cataplexy. Medications approved by the FDA to treat the disorder include modafinil and sodium oxybate. Lifestyle changes and behavior strategies to improve sleep quality are also recommended, such as:

sleeping pills

  • Regular exercise
  • Maintaining a comfortable sleep environment
  • Keeping to a regular sleep schedule
  • Relaxing before bed
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Avoiding caffeine a few hours before bed


Mayo Clinic. Narcolepsy. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcolepsy/basics/definition/con-20027429   Retrieved October 2016.

Mayo Clinic. Narcolepsy. Causes. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcolepsy/basics/causes/con-20027429    Retrieved October 2016.

MaryAnn DePietro, CRT is a medical writer and licensed respiratory therapist with over a decade of clinical experience, MaryAnn DePietro has been published in magazines, newspapers and on health websites. She earned degrees in both respiratory therapy and rehabilitation. As a therapist, she has worked with hundreds of patients with medical conditions, such as COPD, asthma, sleep apnea and cancer.

Summary: What is Narcolepsy? Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options of narcolepsy with and without cataplexy.

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3 thoughts on “What is Narcolepsy?

  1. Dee T Reply

    My son is 34 years old and the doctors can’t seem to help, I have nowhere to turn. He doesn’t sleep at all, he falls in and out of sleep during the day, he can’t keep a job bc of his problems. He has anxiety attacks, he talks in his sleep when dozing off, he fights in his sleep, he has pull curtains off the wall, he says his legs get like spaghetti and then he passes out but only for a minute or two and then he pops up, he scared, he lives in the emergency room, his doctor put him on anxiety Ned’s, but they don’t help, he now has high blood pressure . He tells me all the time he feels like he not gonna live long. Help me to find some help for my son. I’m really worried.

  2. Susan Reply

    Hi, my daughter is 25 yrs old and has to take a nap every day. She gets tired and grumpy on top of that. She said she has nightmares at night and sometimes wakes up thinking someone is in her bedroom. She does not do drugs and is healthy. She does seem to get easily agitated sometimes though. I am concerned about her. She lives in her own apartment with her cat and has just completed her Master’s degree. She sometimes seems stressed, but does not share. Thanks for your advise.

  3. PR NEEDING to work Reply

    My doctor has had to increase my Provigil to 600mg a day. He says he is in uncharted waters. He is referring me to Emory. Can I not stay on this dose long-term as it seems to be working and my FMLA days are almost up.

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