The main characteristic of narcolepsy is overwhelming excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), even after adequate nighttime sleep. A person with narcolepsy is likely to become drowsy or to fall asleep, often at inappropriate times and places. Daytime naps may occur with or without warning and may be irresistible. These naps can occur several times a day. They are typically refreshing, but only for up to a couple hours. Drowsiness may persist for prolonged periods of time. In addition, night-time sleep may be fragmented with frequent wakenings.
Daytime sleepiness, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations also occur in people who do not have narcolepsy, more frequently in people who are suffering from extreme lack of sleep. Cataplexy is generally considered to be unique to narcolepsy.
In most cases, the first symptom of narcolepsy to appear is excessive and overwhelming daytime sleepiness. The other symptoms may begin alone or in combination months or years after the onset of the daytime naps. There are wide variations in the development, severity, and order of appearance of cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations in individuals. Only about 20 to 25 percent of people with narcolepsy experience all four symptoms. The excessive daytime sleepiness generally persists throughout life, but sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations may not.
The symptoms of narcolepsy, especially the excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy, often become severe enough to cause serious problems in a person’s social, personal, and professional lives and severely limit activities.
While the cause of narcolepsy has not yet been determined, scientists have discovered conditions that may increase an individual’s risk of having the disorder. Specifically, there appears to be a strong link between narcoleptic individuals and certain genetic conditions. One factor that may predispose an individual to narcolepsy involves an area of Chromosome 6 known as the HLA complex. There appears to be a correlation between narcoleptic individuals and certain variations in HLA genes, although it is not required for the condition to occur.
Learning as much about narcolepsy as possible and finding a support system can help patients and families deal with the practical and emotional effects of the disease, possible occupational limitations, and situations that might cause injury. A variety of educational and other materials are available from sleep medicine or narcolepsy organizations. Support groups exist to help persons with narcolepsy and their families.