Narcolepsy is a chronic (long-lasting) neurological (affecting the brain or nerves) disorder that involves your body’s central nervous system. The central nervous system is the “highway” of nerves that carries messages from your brain to other parts of your body. For people with narcolepsy, the messages about when to sleep and when to be awake sometimes hit roadblocks or detours and arrive in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is why someone who has narcolepsy not managed by medications may fall asleep while eating dinner or driving a car—or at times when he or she wants to be awake.
Who is at Risk?
Narcolepsy is a genetic disorder, meaning it runs in families. However, what causes narcolepsy is not yet known. About one in 2,000 people suffer 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. Often 10-15 years pass between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis.
Diagnosis and Treatment
In addition to a medical history and physical examination, a diagnosis is made from a test 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.
The best treatment plan is the one that works for you. Treatment with medications is the first line of defense. Changes in behavior combined with drug treatment have helped most persons with narcolepsy improve their alertness and enjoy an active lifestyle.