Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder in which the brain is unable to regulate the sleep-wake cycle normally. It is a chronic disorder that affects approximately 0.05% of the population. This translates to roughly one in every 2000 people. While the cause of narcolepsy is not fully understood yet, scientists have found genes associated with this disorder. The likelihood of developing narcolepsy is increased if an individual has a particular type of genetic makeup, termed HLADQB1*0602.
- Excessive sleepiness during waking hours for no apparent reason. This is usually the first symptom to appear.
- Falling asleep in inappropriate situations such as when talking to someone, working or driving.
- Feeling weak or sudden collapse during periods of strong emotions (e.g. laughter, anger, fear).
- Vivid nightmares immediately before falling asleep or waking up.
- Paralysed immediately before falling asleep or waking up.
There is currently no treatment that can reverse narcolepsy. Treatment with medications is the first line of defence against debilitating symptoms. However, changes in behaviour are equally important and when combined with drug treatment have helped most people with narcolepsy improve their alertness and enjoy an active lifestyle.
A woman with narcolepsy who is pregnant (or is thinking about becoming pregnant) should speak to her physician about the possible effects of her medication on the child.
Narcolepsy and driving
A common misconception of people with narcolepsy is that they should not drive. The good news is that diagnosed and medically treated patients with narcolepsy appear no more at risk for road accidents than the general public.