What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder in which people have difficulty regulating their sleep-wake cycles. It is most often characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and abnormal REM sleep. Narcoleptics often fall asleep in the middle of the day and are tired throughout the day. Because they have abnormal sleep patterns, they are not getting more sleep. Instead, they are often more tired than other people because their sleep is disrupted.

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Narcolepsy affects roughly 1 in every 2,000 people. The symptoms appear in childhood or adolescence, but many people have symptoms of narcolepsy for years before getting a proper diagnosis. The cause of narcolepsy is not currently known. Possible contributing factors include trauma, infections, or stress. It may also be caused by autoimmune disorders. There also may be a genetic component, as about 10 percent of people with narcolepsy have family members who do, too. Narcolepsy affects men and women equally.

In addition to the sleep issues listed above, some narcolepsy patients also experience sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and cataplexy. Cataplexy is an autoimmune condition experienced by about 70 percent of people with narcolepsy. It is the sudden experience of muscle weakness when someone is fully awake. This is often caused by a strong emotion such as laughing or crying.

Narcolepsy is diagnosed by a physical exam and sleep studies. There is no cure for narcolepsy, but some medications may help. Some patients also show improvement with behavioral modifications, such as taking short naps and improving sleep habits. If you think you have narcolepsy, please contact our sleep medicine specialists. They will help you come up with a personalized treatment plan.

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