Narcolepsy is a neurologic disorder that occurs in people who have too little of a brain chemical called hypocretin. There’s no known cause for the condition, which often runs in families. In some cases, narcolepsy can be linked to brain damage from a head injury or other neurologic condition.
These “sleep attacks” last a few seconds to a few minutes, and can occur in the middle of a meal, a conversation or even when driving. It’s important to diagnose narcolepsy so treatments can be started to control these episodes.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
In addition to sleep attacks, narcolepsy symptoms can include:
- Cataplexy – A condition in which you lose control of your muscles and can’t move. During cataplexy, your head falls forward and your knees may buckle, causing you to fall. Episodes can last from 30 seconds to a few minutes and can be triggered by laughter, anger and other strong emotions.
- Hallucinations – Perceptions of things that don’t exist, but that you can see, hear or feel. These can happen as you’re falling asleep or waking up, and they can often be alarming.
- Parasomnias – Certain parasomnias, such as sleep paralysis and REM sleep behavior disorder, can occur along with narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy symptoms usually begin during adolescence. If you have symptoms of narcolepsy, your doctor may suggest several tests to diagnose your problem.
At El Camino Health, we use polysomnography (sleep studies) — overnight sleep tests— to diagnose narcolepsy and plan treatment.
Narcolepsy is considered a lifelong condition and can’t be cured, but there are treatments that can control your symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe a stimulant medicine to help you stay awake during the day, as well as an antidepressant to help reduce other narcolepsy symptoms. In addition, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to help you establish healthy sleep habits.