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Sleep Education: Narcolepsy

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Narcolepsy is a condition in which the brain is unable to regulate the sleep-wake cycles normally. Prevalence is thought to be less than one percent of the population. Onset tends to occur in adolescent to young adulthood years; however, symptoms can appear later in life, too.

While narcolepsy affects both sexes, there is a slightly higher risk in men. Research also suggests that there is a genetic component to narcolepsy.

Symptoms of Narcolepsy

Some symptoms of narcolepsy include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS)
  • Sleep attacks that occur without warning and are hard to resist
  • Cataplexy or sudden loss of muscle control, often triggered by highly stressful or emotional situations
  • Sleep paralysis or a feeling of not being able to talk or move; may occur when falling asleep or waking up
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Poor memory
  • Depression
  • Vivid dreams

Another symptom of narcolepsy may include hypnogogic hallucinations, or experiencing images, sounds or sensations that are not really present. This usually occurs as the person is falling asleep or waking up. Often hallucinations produce a feeling of dread or fear, and they can occur in conjunction with sleep paralysis.

Understanding REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is important in narcolepsy. REM is the dreaming portion of sleep and usually occurs after the first 90 minutes of sleep. For a narcoleptic patient, REM can occur much sooner.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Diagnosis of narcolepsy should be done by a trained sleep professional. A complete medical and family history is important in the diagnosis of any disorder. Be prepared to answer questions concerning these areas. It’s also important to be aware of any particular sleep habits and/or any symptoms you may be experiencing. It might be helpful to keep a sleep diary for two weeks prior to your appointment. Record all pertinent details concerning your sleep patterns and any symptoms. A sleep study may be needed for a definitive diagnosis to be made.

Treatment of narcolepsy can help reduce symptoms and hopefully create a better quality of life. While medication may be prescribed by your doctor, lifestyle adjustments might also be useful in helping you cope with your symptoms. Listed below are some suggestions:

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule.
  • Exercise regularly but avoid strenuous exercise two to four hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid or limit caffeine, nicotine and alcohol intake.
  • Educate those you interact with on a daily basis about the disorder and how it may affect your relations with them.
  • Adjust your schedule to allow for short naps during the day.
  • When driving, be aware of when your symptoms are occurring. Always pull off the road and find a safe place to take a nap.

Narcolepsy support groups can offer a network of support, empathy and learning from those who know what it’s like to live with this disorder. The references listed below have resources to help you find a local support group.

References: National Sleep Foundation | Narcolepsy Network

Image of young man having difficulty staying awake.

Treatment of Narcolepsy

Treatment of narcolepsy can help reduce symptoms and create a better quality of life.

While medication may be prescribed by your doctor, lifestyle adjustments may also be useful in helping you cope with your symptoms.

Image of young man taking a nap in his car.


When driving, be aware of when your nacrolepsy symptoms are occurring and always pull off the road to find a safe place to take a nap.

Dr Jochism

Dr. Sean Jochims, Neurologist

Dr. Sean Jochims graduated medical school with the prestigious Rick Wartgow Award for dedication to medicine. He also received Excellence in Teaching Awards as chief resident in neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

  • Medical School: Medical College of Wisconsin
  • Internship/Internal Medicine: Northwestern University
  • Clinical Neurophysiology Fellowship: Rush Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, Chicago
  • Participant at Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine
Board Certifications
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