What is narcolepsy?


Narcolepsy is a disorder that affects the brain’s ability to regulate sleep and wake cycles. About 200,000 people in the U.S. have it. It affects people of all ages, but usually begins in childhood or early adulthood. Anyone can get narcolepsy. Most people who have it don’t have a family history of the condition.

Doctors are unsure exactly what causes narcolepsy. It’s thought that having a low amount of the brain chemical hypocretin has something to do with it.

People who have narcolepsy enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep at abnormal times. REM is the sleep cycle in which dreams occur. Most people enter REM sleep an hour to 90 minutes after falling asleep. People with narcolepsy enter REM quickly, within 15 minutes of falling asleep. They also can enter REM while awake. Or they may not enter REM at all.

What are narcolepsy symptoms?

The most common narcolepsy symptom is excessive daytime sleepiness. Other symptoms include:

Cataplexy. This is muscle weakness that ranges from mild to severe. It’s commonly mistaken for fainting or seizures. But people experiencing cataplexy remain conscious.
In severe cases, cataplexy causes loss of muscle control throughout the body for up to a few minutes. In mild cases, a person will lose muscle control in a small group of muscles, such as the eyelids, for a few seconds. Cataplexy is often triggered by strong emotions, such as anger, laughter, excitement, or sadness.

Sleep paralysis. This is the loss of muscle control while falling asleep or waking. It’s similar to cataplexy but is attached to sleep. People remain conscious during sleep paralysis but can’t move or speak.

Hallucinations. These vivid and sometimes frightening images can appear to be real. They are most likely to occur while falling asleep or waking.

How is narcolepsy diagnosed?

Narcolepsy is often misdiagnosed. It can be mistaken for a seizure disorder or a mental illness. If you have excessive daytime sleepiness, it’s important to get it diagnosed.

The first step in finding out if you have narcolepsy is to talk to your primary care provider. He or she will order a sleep study or refer you to a sleep doctor.

At Penn Highlands Healthcare, we offer in-home sleep studies as well as in-lab sleep studies. If your sleep study indicates possible narcolepsy, you’ll then have a second test that evaluates daytime sleepiness.

What narcolepsy treatments are available?

Narcolepsy is a lifelong condition that has no cure. Symptoms can be controlled with treatment. Medication is often prescribed to help with excessive daytime sleepiness. Lifestyle changes also are recommended, including taking regularly scheduled naps and exercising for at least 20 minutes four to five hours before bed.

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