Narcolepsy: Symptoms and Relief

If you find yourself nodding off throughout the day, you could be one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who suffer from narcolepsy. What can you do about it?




Below is a look at the telltale signs, similar disorders and treatments available.

Signs and Symptoms

Narcolepsy usually starts around puberty. It’s thought to be largely hereditary, even though it often shows up after it’s been triggered by a head injury, an intensely emotional experience or another event. Symptoms sometimes start subtly and become more pronounced with time, and the disorder is typically diagnosed about 10 years after the arrival of the first symptoms.

The telltale signs of narcolepsy include excessive daytime sleepiness and an uncontrollable urge to sleep. Narcoleptics know they’re about to fall asleep, but they can’t do anything to stop it from happening. They aren’t prone to falling asleep mid-sentence or collapsing on the floor without warning.

Similar Disorders

Narcolepsy is sometimes confused or associated with other sleep disorders, including cataplexy, sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations since they are very similar in nature. Also, narcoleptics tend to suffer from one or more of these disorders as well.

Cataplexy is characterized by sudden muscle weakness that is brought on by strong emotions. You might experience bizarre episodes of uncontrollable muscle weakness. For example, during a heated argument with your spouse, your head might drop and your knees buckle without you being able to control it.

Sleep paralysis is probably the most frightening sleep disorder. Marked by an inability to move your body after waking up in the morning, an episode of sleep paralysis can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.

Hypnagogic hallucinations are characterized by unusually vivid dreams that occur just as you’re beginning to fall asleep. These hallucinations occur when a person immediately shifts from wakefulness to REM sleep without first going through the lighter stages of sleep.

What Can You Do?

If you’re experiencing narcoleptic symptoms, it helps to 1) make a structured plan to take frequent naps (20 minutes or less) throughout the day; 2) take a brief rest prior to driving or operating dangerous equipment to avoid accidents; 3) avoid alcohol, which can keep you up late at night; and 4) don’t depend on caffeine, which cannot keep you awake. Also, you may be able to find other options specific to you by consulting a board-certified sleep specialist.


Your doctor may prescribe stimulant medications to help you stay awake when necessary, such as Cylert or Ritalin; antidepressants like Prozac or Vivactil to give you more bodily control; and sleep meds such as Ambien and Klonopin to improve nighttime sleep. Support groups and information centers for narcolepsy may help to reassure you and offer other avenues for treatment and management.

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