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Kathryn Patricelli, MA

What is Narcolepsy?

A person with this condition is unable to resist going to sleep or taking a nap. Symptoms include:

  • Ongoing periods where you have an unstoppable need to go to sleep, are unable to stop yourself from going to sleep, or napping multiple times in the same day. You might be sitting and talking to someone and suddenly fall asleep in the middle of the conversation.
  • This has been happening at least 3 times per week for 3 months or more.
  • You might have sudden loss of muscle tone (called cataplexy) that usually happen after laughing or joking. For example, after you laugh, your knees suddenly buckle and you can't stand up, or you head droops down toward your shoulders.
  • You might have sleep paralysis where you are unable to move or speak for a brief period of time when you are falling asleep or first wake up.
  • You might have very realistic hallucinations right before you fall sleep or right after you wake up.

How common is Narcolepsy?

This is a pretty rate condition that happens in less than well under 1% of the general population. It happens to both males and females, but might occur a bit more in males.

What are the risk factors for Narcolepsy?

This condition is more common in those who sleepwalk, who have an REM sleep behavior disorder, or who grind their teeth and clench their jaw (known as bruxism) than in the general population. Medical conditions that affect the immune system, head traumas, or sudden changes in the awake-sleep cycle (a new job, stress, etc.) may also increase risk of developing this condition. There is also a strong genetic factor where it can run in families.

What other disorders or conditions often occur with Narcolepsy?

This condition can occur with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, obesity, and sleep apnea.

How is Narcolepsy treated?

There is currently no cure for this condition. The most common treatments include medication and lifestyle changes.

Medications may include stimulants that help keep the person awake during the day and antidepressants, which can help reduce the loss of muscle tone issues, as well as hallucinations.

Lifestyle changes to manage the symptoms may include setting a sleep schedule where the person goes to sleep and gets up at the same time every day (no changes between weekdays and weekends), taking short 15-20-minute naps a few times a day on a set schedule, getting regular exercise (not too close to bedtime), and avoiding nicotine (smoking) and alcohol.