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Narcolepsy Symptoms and Treatments

Narcolepsy is a disabling sleep disorder characterized by an uncontrollable daytime drowsiness and sleep attacks during normal waking hours.  It happens mostly among adolescents and young adults.

Attacks may be very short – lasting from just a few seconds to more than an hour, they may come with a wide range of intensity and there may be only a few to many of them a day.

Sleep episodes may happen any time of the day, while driving, talking, eating, and may interfere with daily activities, reducing quality of life, leading to problems in the workplace and increasing the risk of car accidents. 

Specific causes of narcolepsy are not known. Medical researchers have a few different theories and are conducting studies to prove them. 

The first one is based on the fact that people with this sleep disorder have a deficiency of specific neurons in their brain. Those neurons are responsible for transition from sleep to wakefulness and opposite. Some researchers who used gene markers in their studies believe that the disorder may be inherited.

The are also findings implicating that some cases of this sleep disorder may be associated with a malfunction of the immune system, where the antibodies are produced and cause damage in the brain, which then may trigger sleep attack.

Narcolepsy symtoms

Narcolepsy Symptoms and Diagnosis

Below are listed the most common symptoms of narcolepsy, although not all of them have to be present in a given case:

  • Intense daytime drowsiness
  • Uncontrollable sleep attacks
  • Cataplexy, which is an unexpected loss of muscle tone without loss of consciousness. This usually happens in response to a sudden emotion.
  • Sleep paralysis with auditory or visual hallucinations in the state of transition from sleep to wakefulness.
  • Frequent awakening at night caused by nightmares or leg jerks.

Careful examination must take place in order to exclude any disease with similar symptoms.

The Multiple Sleep Latency Test may be done to confirm diagnosis. This is a complex test during which a person is allowed to fall asleep in a sleep lab, several times during a day.  

During each sleep episode recording equipment collects data describing brain activity, muscle tone, eye movements, heart rate, breathing, and body movements.  

The information is analyzed by the doctor to determine the severity of the disease and possible treatment options.

A girl with narcolepsy

Treatment Options

Narcolepsy is usually a lifelong problem so adjustments in lifestyle and good 
sleep hygiene are essential. Some of changes may include:

  • regular naps, especially after meals
  • stress reduction 
  • avoiding monotone activities, keeping busy while awake
  • avoiding heavy meals

Medical treatment may include:

  • prescription stimulant drugs to control drowsiness and sleep attacks
  • antidepressant drugs to suppress cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hallucinations
  • one of the new drugs to control sleepiness is Modafanil, approved by the FDA in 1999.


Narcolepsy Symptoms and Treatment


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