What is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is an uncommon problem characterised by the brain’s inability to control the normal sleep-wake cycle causing excessive daytime sleepiness with sudden bouts of irresistible sleep.

It can be associated with other symptoms such as cataplexy (a sudden loss of muscle control triggered by emotion), sleep paralysis (the sense of being paralysed whilst lying awake in bed: although this can happen without narcolepsy) vivid dreams and hallucinations. It affects about 1in 2000 people.

What causes Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy with cataplexy is thought to be due to the loss of the brain cells that produce a molecule called orexin or hypocretin. It is thought to be an autoimmune reaction and in some instances can be triggered by an infection, illness or head injury. In rare cases it may be a genetic defect that prevents the normal production of these molecules.

How is Narcolepsy diagnosed?

Narcolepsy may be suspected after careful assessment by a sleep physician. Two tests are essential for the diagnosis of narcolepsy. Testing involves an overnight sleep study in a laboratory or hospital followed the next morning by an MSLT (Multiple Sleep Latency Test).

Can it be treated?

Treatment includes lifestyle and behavioural changes such as maintaining a regular sleep schedule, napping strategies, managing emotional responses and safety precautions in dangerous situations such as driving or operating machinery.

Medications can be used to manage the symptoms and these include antidepressants when cataplexy is present and stimulant medications.

Regular review with your doctor is essential.

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