Understanding Narcolepsy

The unique sleep disorder known as narcolepsy is identified by a collection of unusual and rather scary symptoms and characterized by falling asleep often and at inappropriate times. In spite of the obvious symptoms, very few people are diagnosed early enough to prevent the devastating effects this condition can have on their lives.

You may have seen viral videos of prancing puppies who suddenly, and without warning, keel over and fall asleep. But it's quite possible you don't know a single person who has been diagnosed with narcolepsy, even though it is the second leading cause of excessive daytime drowsiness (after obstructive sleep apnea) identified at sleep clinics, according to Stanford University School of Medicine's Center for Narcolepsy. There's a reason for that.

The symptoms of narcolepsy often begin to appear in adolescence, as early as ten years of age and sometimes sooner, but a diagnosis is not usually made until an average of 14 years after the onset of symptoms. With the lack of recognition and treatment over all those years, it becomes difficult for someone with narcolepsy to build a normal social or professional life.

Experts aren't sure what causes narcolepsy, but sleep scientists have identified related genes and brain chemicals, and they know that symptoms are associated with abnormalities in the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep. The primary symptoms of narcolepsy include:

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

The type of drowsiness experienced by people with narcolepsy is overwhelming, causing them to fall asleep without warning, often at inappropriate times. These "sleep attacks" may last only a few seconds, or longer, and occur often throughout the day.

Loss of Muscle Control

People with narcolepsy suffer from a condition known as cataplexy, or loss of muscle control. The effects of cataplexy range from what might appear as a mild facial tic, or drooping facial features, to knees buckling and suddenly falling down.

Sleep Paralysis

Just before falling asleep, or just upon wakening, people with narcolepsy may find themselves temporarily paralyzed. They cannot move their bodies, open their eyes, or even breathe deeply.


People with narcolepsy often experience hypnagogic hallucinations, which are very clear and powerful dreams that occur just before falling asleep or soon after an attack of cataplexy. There is a feeling of being asleep and awake at the same time. The dream is visually very life-like and is sometimes accompanied by sound and other sensations. Someone who is experiencing this type of powerful hallucination will be jerked from a sleep state and the dream will remain vivid.

Early diagnosis is essential to successful treatment and outcome for anyone who has narcolepsy. While there is currently no cure, medications are available to treat various symptoms. Other steps, such as following a strict sleep schedule and avoiding nicotine and alcohol, can also improve quality of life.



National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. 14 May 2010 Web 27 Sep 2010



Stanford School of Medicine Center for Narcolepsy. Web 27 Sep 2010



University of Chicago Medical Center. Web 27 Sep 2010