Narcolepsy is a rare long-term brain disorder that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times. Narcolepsy doesn't cause serious or long-term physical health problems. But it can have a significant impact on daily life and be difficult to cope with emotionally.

Symptoms of narcolepsy

For people with narcolepsy the brain is unable to regulate sleeping and waking patterns normally.

This can result in:

  • excessive daytime sleepiness – feeling very drowsy throughout the day, and having difficulty concentrating and staying awake
  • sleep attacks – falling asleep suddenly and without warning
  • cataplexy – temporary loss of muscle control resulting in weakness and possible collapse, often in response to emotions such as laughter and anger
  • sleep paralysis – a temporary inability to move or speak when waking up or falling asleep
  • excessive dreaming and waking in the night – dreams often come as you fall asleep or just before or during waking

Causes of narcolepsy

Many cases of narcolepsy are caused by a lack of the brain chemical hypocretin, which regulates wakefulness.

The lack of hypocretin is thought to occur because the immune system mistakenly attacks the cells that produce it or the receptors that allow it to work.

This doesn't explain all cases of narcolepsy, and the exact cause of the problem is often unclear.

Things that have been suggested as possible triggers of narcolepsy include:

  • hormonal changes, which can occur during puberty or the menopause
  • major psychological stress
  • an infection, such as swine flu, or the medication used to vaccinate against it

Who's affected

Narcolepsy is a fairly rare condition. It's difficult to know exactly how many people have narcolepsy because many cases are thought to go unreported.

Men and women are thought to be affected equally by narcolepsy. Although some studies have suggested the condition may be more common in men.

The symptoms often begin during adolescence, although the condition is usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40.

Diagnosing narcolepsy

See your GP if you think you may have narcolepsy. They may ask about your sleeping habits and any other symptoms you have.

They may also carry out tests to help rule out other conditions that could be causing your excessive daytime sleepiness, such as:

If necessary, you'll be referred to a specialist in sleep disorders, who will analyse your sleep patterns. This will usually involve staying overnight in a specialist sleep centre so your sleep can be monitored.

Treating narcolepsy

There's currently no cure for narcolepsy. Making changes to improve your sleeping habits and taking medication can help minimise the impact the condition has on your daily life.

Taking frequent, brief naps evenly spaced throughout the day is one of the best ways to manage excessive daytime drowsiness.

This may be difficult when you're at work or school. But your GP or specialist may be able to devise a sleep schedule that will help you get into a routine of taking naps.

Keeping to a strict bedtime routine can also help. You should try to go to bed at the same time each night.

If your symptoms are particularly troublesome, you may be prescribed medication that can:

  • help reduce daytime sleepiness
  • prevent cataplexy attacks
  • improve your sleep at night

These medications are usually taken as daily tablets, capsules or drinkable solutions.

Narcolepsy and driving

If you're diagnosed with narcolepsy, it may affect your ability to drive. Stop driving immediately and tell the Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVA) of your condition.

You'll need to complete a medical questionnaire so your individual circumstances can be assessed. You'll usually be allowed to drive again if your narcolepsy is well controlled and you have regular reviews to assess your condition.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published July 2018

This page is due for review July 2019

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