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Narcolepsy

Definition

Narcolepsy is a nervous system problem that causes extreme sleepiness and attacks of daytime sleep.

Alternative Names

Daytime sleep disorder; Cataplexy

Causes

Experts aren't sure of the exact cause of narcolepsy. It may have more than one cause.

Many people with narcolepsy have low levels of hypocretin (also known as orexin). This is a chemical made in the brain that helps you stay awake. In some people with narcolepsy, there are fewer of the cells that make this chemical. This may be due to an autoimmune reaction. An auto immune reaction is when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.

Narcolepsy can run in families. Researchers have found certain genes linked to narcolepsy.

Symptoms

Narcolepsy symptoms usually first occur during ages 15 - 30. Below are the most common symptoms.

Extreme daytime sleepiness

Cataplexy

Hallucinations

Sleep paralysis

Most people with narcolepsy have daytime sleepiness and cataplexy. Not everyone has all these symptoms. Surprisingly, despite being very tired, many people with narcolepsy don't sleep well at night.

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will do a physical exam.

You may have a blood test to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. These include:

You may have other tests, including:

Treatment

There is no cure for narcolepsy. However, treatment can help control symptoms.

LIFESTYLE CHANGES

Certain changes can help improve your sleep at night and ease daytime sleepiness:

These tips can help you do better at work and in social situations.

If you have narcolepsy, you may have driving restrictions. Restrictions vary from state to state.

MEDICINES

These drugs may have side effects. Work with your doctor to find the treatment plan that works for you.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Narcolepsy is lifelong condition.

It may be dangerous if episodes occur while driving, operating machinery, or doing similar activities.

Narcolepsy can usually be controlled with treatment. Treating other underlying sleep disorders can improve narcolepsy symptoms.

Possible Complications

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if:

Prevention

You can't prevent narcolepsy. Treatment may reduce the number of attacks. Avoid situations that trigger the condition if you are prone to attacks of narcolepsy.

References

Borkan JM. Narcolepsy. In: Ferri: Ferri's Clinical Advisor. 1st ed. Philadephia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2014: section 1.

Cao M. Advances in Narcolepsy. Medical Clinics of North America. 2010; 94(3): 541-55.

Chokroverty S, Avidan AY. Sleep and its disorders. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. In: Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 68.

Mahowald MW. Disorders of sleep. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 412.


Review Date: 11/30/2013
Reviewed By: Allen J. Blaivas, DO, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Attending Physician in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine, Department of Veteran Affairs, VA New Jersey Health Care System, East Orange, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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