Narcolepsy (or Daytime Sleep Disorder or Cataplexy)

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that originates in a person’s nervous system and causes him or her to feel very sleepy during waking hours as well as to be the victim of frequent “sleep attacks” (narcoleptic attacks). Sleep attacks occur quickly, usually because the affected person is overwhelmed by sudden fatigue and must fall asleep briefly to relieve the feeling—even if the time and place are inappropriate. Such attacks are often parodied on television and in movies when a character on screen falls asleep instantly, sometimes falling out of a chair or nearly causing an accident if the event occurs while the character is driving.

Causes of Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is also known to affect several members within the same family and has therefore been linked to certain hereditary genes. Extensive research into the causes of narcolepsy has been conducted among sleep doctors. We now know that that the condition is caused by disorder or malfunction in the nervous system (the brain, spinal cord and nerves throughout the body). Most narcoleptic patients suffer from an insufficient amount of hypocretin in their brains—hypocretin being a special protein produced in the brain that is necessary for stimulating feelings of wakefulness. Researchers have not yet figured out why less hypocretin would be produced in the brains of narcoleptic patients, but the importance of the protein for sleep and wake function is clear. Hypocretin has recently been tied to Alzheimer’s disease.

Narcolepsy Symptoms

In general, narcolepsy symptoms appear for the first time most prominently during a narcoleptic patient’s teenage years until the patient turns about 30 years old. The most common narcolepsy symptoms include excessive sleepiness during the day and period sleep attacks that last between 15 and 30 minutes and make you feel particularly refreshed upon waking. Some patients with narcolepsy have also reported visual and auditory hallucinations that occur while sleeping or while waking, as well as sleep paralysis—the loss of all motor skills as a patient is either falling asleep or just waking up.

Furthermore, during what is labeled a cataplexic attack, a narcoleptic patient may lose all muscle function briefly, for about half a minute, triggered by powerful emotions, such as when the patient is laughing heartily or feeling extremely angry. Cataplexic attacks can happen so quickly sometimes that the patient may not even notice them. Other times he or she will suddenly notice the head falling forward, the jaw becoming limp and the knees buckling. The patient can fall over and remain paralyzed for more than a few minutes if the attack is particularly strong.

Finding Professional Treatment for Narcolepsy

Blood tests and a physical exam will help a doctor determine whether a patient’s symptoms are merely the byproduct of another condition, such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea. If one of these conditions is not detected, then brain wave monitoring tests such as EEG (electroencephalogram) and sleep study (polysomnogram) conducted at an overnight sleep center or sleep clinic may help a professional produce a diagnosis.

In the case that narcolepsy is diagnosed, the sleep expert and the patient may move forward with an appropriate method of treatment aimed at controlling narcolepsy symptoms—whether that is going to counseling for support, changing the patient’s diet and practicing a napping schedule during the day. Prescription medications are available for narcoleptic patients who need help staying awake to perform normal daily functions, although driving is usually restricted.  Contact a sleep doctor if you have any questions about narcolepsy.