Narcolepsy Causes & Treatment

What causes narcolepsy?

Although the exact cause is not known, narcolepsy appears to be a disorder of the part of the central nervous system that controls sleep and wakefulness. Cataplexy and sleep paralysis are similar to the loss of muscle tone that accompanies normal dreaming in a stage of sleep called REM. In people with narcolepsy, however, these events (the lack of muscle tone and dream experiences) occur at inappropriate times.

How to diagnose narcolepsy?

The first step in the diagnosis of this disorder should be an evaluation by a healthcare provider to make sure that a medical illness is not the cause. For many, the next step is a visit to a sleep specialist. At the sleep disorders center, the specialist will thoroughly review the person's medical history and perform a complete physical examination. If the specialist suspects narcolepsy, the patient may be asked to undergo testing at the sleep center.

How to treat narcolepsy?

Although narcolepsy cannot yet be cured, its symptoms can usually be controlled or improved so that sufferers experience symptoms less frequently and lead fairly normal lives. Because the array of symptoms is different in each person, the patient and sleep specialist must work together to plan a course of treatment. A treatment plan can have several important parts: medication, behavior treatment, and management of the patient's environment.


Over-the-counter medications containing caffeine usually do not work well in narcolepsy. However, prescription medications are available and can be effective in controlling excessive daytime sleepiness, cataplexy, hallucinations, and sleep disruptions.*

Behavior Treatment

Treatment for narcolepsy often requires not only medication, but also adjustments in lifestyle. The following suggestions can bring substantial improvement for some narcoleptics.

  • Follow a regular sleep/wake schedule
    Take short naps once or twice each day as needed.
    Be cautious during activities that can be dangerous, such as driving or cooking, try to plan your schedule so that you will be alert at these times.

Management of the Environment

Narcolepsy can be difficult to manage if the patient's family, acquaintances, and co-workers do not understand the disorder. Daytime sleepiness may be mistaken for laziness, depression, or lack of ability. The signs of cataplexy and dreaming during wakefulness may be mistakenly seen as a psychiatric problem. People with narcolepsy, together with their doctors and counselors, can do the following:

  • Educate family members
    Let friends know about the disorder
    Educate employers about the disorder
    Find a narcolepsy support group
    If narcolepsy interferes with the ability to work, look into financial benefits that may be available
    If the person suffering from narcolepsy is a child, make sure his or her teachers know about the disorder
When to see a healthcare provider
If the symptoms of narcolepsy are affecting the person's ability to drive, hold a job, stay in school, perform normal daily activities, or if the symptoms are interfering with social activities and personal relationships, a visit with a narcolepsy health specialist is in order.