All About Narcolepsy

What Causes Narcolepsy?

The exact cause of narcolepsy is not clearly understood. Narcolepsy seems to be a biological problem, possibly involving abnormalities of brain chemistry. Narcolepsy or a predisposition to it may run in families. However, the way the predisposition might be inherited remains unknown. There is no evidence for a psychological basis for the disorder.

About one in 2,000 people suffers from narcolepsy. It affects both men and women of any age, but its symptoms are usually noticed after puberty begins. For the majority of persons with narcolepsy, their first symptoms appear between the ages of 15 and 30.

Most often the initial symptom to appear is excessive daytime sleepiness. Later, after several months or even years, cataplexy or one or more of the other symptoms frequently develops.

Different individuals experience wide variations in both the development, the number, and the severity of their symptoms. Family, friends, educators, employers, and even those with narcolepsy often have a hard time understanding the problem and just what is happening.

How is Narcolepsy Diagnosed?

In addition to a medical history and physician examination, a diagnosis is made from polysomnogram tests in an overnight sleep laboratory to measure brain waves and body movements as well as nerve and muscle function. A diagnosis also includes the results of the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT), which measures the time it takes to fall asleep and to go into deep sleep while taking several naps over a period of time. Often, symptoms are associated with other disorders. Asking for a referral to a sleep specialist or sleep center will avoid the delay in both diagnosis and treatment so often experienced by those who suffer from this serious disorder.

What Treatment is Available?

The best treatment plan is the one that works for you. Treatment with medications is the first line of defense. The goal in using medications should be to approach normal alertness while minimizing side effects and disruptions to daily activities. Changes in behaviour combined with drug treatment have helped most persons with narcolepsy improve their alertness and enjoy an active lifestyle.

Doctors generally agree that drug treatment is only one element of narcolepsy symptom management. Changes in behaviour to encourage good nighttime sleep are important too. Try to:

  • avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the late afternoon or evening
  • exercise regularly, but at least three hours before bedtime
  • do not use your bed for any waking or unrelaxing activities
  • establish a routine time for going to bed and getting up and follow it regularly
  • get enough nighttime sleep – eight hours nightly.

Some sleep specialists recommend several short daily naps along with drug treatment to help control excessive sleepiness and sleep attacks. Others report that a single, long afternoon nap works well to improve a patient’s alertness. If naps help you, set aside at least 20-40 minutes for sleep. Be sure you have time to wake up fully.

Persons suspecting that they may have Narcolepsy should consult a qualified healthcare provider.

Literature concerning Narcolepsy that is distributed by MRC Healthcare, Inc., including this brochure, is offered for information purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for the advice of a healthcare provider.