Narcolepsy is a long-term (chronic) sleep disorder that usually begins showing symptoms in individuals between the ages of 10-25 years old. People with narcolepsy experience sudden, uncontrollable periods of sleepiness that can strike at any time.
Symptoms of narcolepsy include excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) and cataplexy, which is a sudden loss of muscle tone leading to an overwhelming feeling of weakness and loss of voluntary muscle control. Other possible symptoms may include sleep paralysis, which is the inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking; hallucinations, which may occur when a person is falling asleep, waking or during sleep; and general disrupted nighttime sleep patterns. People with narcolepsy may have trouble staying asleep and may report sleep talking, vivid dreaming, or periodic leg movements. Affected individuals are also more likely to become obese, although lifestyle changes can help in the prevention of excessive weight gain.
Narcolepsy is commonly caused by an abnormally low level of a type of neurotransmitter, called hypocretin. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that brain cells produce to communicate with each other and to regulate other processes in the body. Hypocretin is responsible for helping the body to stay awake. Most cases of narcolepsy are “sporadic,” meaning there is not a family history of the disorder. However, about 10 percent of people with narcolepsy have a close relative who is also affected, meaning there may be a genetic cause that is not yet understood.
A doctor can diagnose the condition by using sleep studies and a medical history. Additionally, there are tests to detect low levels of hypocretin. There is currently no cure for narcolepsy, but there are medications available to help manage the condition. Ask your doctor or specialist about the most current treatment options available. Support groups are a good resource for information and support.