Narcolepsy is one of the most unusual and least common of all sleep disorders. It is both a medical condition
and a sleep disorder that causes chronic and uncontrollable instances of daytime sleepiness. A person with
narcolepsy can experience the sudden onset of sleepiness and fall asleep at a moment's notice no matter where they
are or what they are doing. They may drop whatever they happen to be holding, become limp, and fall to the floor in
sleep. Narcolepsy is classified as a chronic neurological disorder and is thought to be caused by the brains
inability to adjust normal sleep wake cycles. However, the cause for this irregularity remains a mystery.
In addition to the sudden onset of uncontrollable sleepiness, individuals who suffer from narcolepsy may also
experience three distinct symptoms.
Cataplexy, which refers to bouts of irregular muscle weakness or paralysis that occurs without loss of
Hypnopompic and hypnogogic hallucinations, which refer to hallucinations experienced while waking up or
when falling asleep.
With the frequent disruptions of sleep patterns, narcolepsy can wreak havoc on an individual's quality of life.
Narcolepsy patients complain of feeling consistently fatigued and irritable.
Narcoleptic "sleep attacks" can occur several times a day, with each attack lasting anywhere from a few seconds
to almost an hour. Most bouts of sudden sleepiness occur during long meetings and lectures. Most individuals that
suffer from narcolepsy report feeling refreshed and revived upon reawakening. Some narcolepsy patients also report
that the narcoleptic attacks can be strongly hallucinogenic, or simply slightly irritating.
It is estimated that 25 people out of every 100,000 people in the United States suffer from narcolepsy, with an
estimated 125,000 individuals diagnosed with the disorder. The disorder is thought to strike individuals with a
genetic predisposition, since it is most commonly repeated in certain families.
Usually, narcolepsy develops during adolescence, with most individuals diagnosed between ages ten and twenty.
However, some individuals are diagnosed in early childhood, and some elderly may experience the sudden onset of
sleep attacks as well. Some studies indicate that the effects of narcolepsy wane with age, although this remains in
Narcolepsy is usually diagnosed through a description of symptoms and by reviewing the results of an
electroencephalogram (EEG). In many cases, a medical professional will advise the patient be examined during a
Unfortunately, there is no actual cure for narcolepsy - only treatment. The primary treatment for narcolepsy
involves making several lifestyle adjustments, including getting regular exercise, avoiding stimulants, and
incorporating regular naps into the individual's daytime schedule. Indeed, taking two to three short naps of 15 to
20 minutes has been proven to help individuals control excessive daytime sleepiness. Individuals with narcolepsy
may need to negotiate with their employers to allow for regular naps during their normal workday.
Individuals with narcolepsy can also greatly benefit from maintaining a daily exercise regime. Just exercising
for 20 minutes a day can help control sleep attacks, improve the quality of nighttime sleep, and help control a
healthy weight. Some studies have shown that excessive weight may contribute to the severity of narcolepsy
Getting regular sleep during the normal nighttime hours is also important in controlling the effects of
narcolepsy. Stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes should be avoided for several hours before
Drugs commonly prescribed to individuals with narcolepsy include stimulants such as ephedrine or amphetamines.
Antidepressant drugs are sometimes also used to control the cataplexic attacks that often accompany bouts of
daytime sleepiness. Over the counter drugs and caffeine are not shown to prove effective in combating the
drowsiness caused by narcoleptic sleep attacks. In 1999, a new drug was approved by the FDA to treat excessive
daytime sleepiness. The drug, Modafinil, has proved effective in suppressing excessive daytime sleepiness, but it
does not treat the cataplexy, paralysis, or hallucinations caused by narcolepsy.
While narcolepsy itself does not cause any medical problems or risks, sudden bouts of severe daytime sleepiness
pose the danger of causing accidents. There have been cases of some narcoleptics actually teaching their children
to drive at a far younger age than is legally allowed just in case they are in a traffic situation when the parent
Narcolepsy can interfere with the performance of everyday tasks, reduce overall productivity, and disrupt with
normal nighttime sleep patterns. Also, recent research indicates that narcolepsy may be linked to blood pressure
Narcolepsy patients can greatly improve their quality of life by maintaining normal and healthy sleep schedules,
and by taking medications to combat the effects of cataplexy and excessive drowsiness.