Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness. People with narcolepsy may find it difficult to stay awake for long periods of time and experience random, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the daytime. Narcolepsy may develop as a result of genetics, stress or an improper balance of chemicals in the brain, although the specific cause of this condition is unknown. While there is no cure for narcolepsy, there are several treatment options available to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life for individuals with this condition.
Causes of Narcolepsy
The exact causes of narcolepsy in humans are unknown, however it may be a genetic condition, as narcolepsy tends to run in families. Some research indicates that it may be an autoimmune disorder that causes low levels of the neurochemical, hypocretin. Most people with narcolepsy have decreased levels of hypocretin.
Symptoms of Narcolepsy
People with narcolepsy may experience excessive daytime sleepiness, disrupted nighttime sleep, or sleep paralysis. Some individuals with narcolepsy may also suffer from other neurological or sleep disorders that may include:
- Sleep apnea
- Restless legs syndrome
Another symptom may be a condition known as cataplexy, the sudden loss of muscle tone, which involves weakness, slurred speech and temporary paralysis in some patients. In addition, individuals with narcolepsy may also experience dream-like hallucinations during periods between sleep and wakefulness.
Diagnosis of Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy is often diagnosed after a physical examination and thorough evaluation of the patient's medical and sleep history. Blood tests may be performed to rule out any underlying conditions. Additional diagnostic tests may include:
- EEG to measure activity of the brain
- ECG to measure activity of the heart
- Genetic testing
Sleep study tests are often performed and may include a polysomnogram and a multiple sleep latency test. These tests are often performed in a specialized sleep center.
Treatment for Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy is often a chronic condition and there is no cure currently available. Treatment focuses on controlling symptoms and may include antidepressants, stimulants to stay awake and other types of medication. Home treatment may include adhering to a regular sleep schedule, taking scheduled naps and exercising regularly. Patients with narcolepsy may also benefit from avoiding alcohol and nicotine. Many patients are able to effectively manage this condition with a customized treatment approach.