How is Narcolepsy Diagnosed?

woman suffering from narcolepsyFalling asleep or feeling sudden muscle weakness while you’re at work or doing other activities during the day is worrisome and frightening. It could also be dangerous since you could get into an accident while you’re behind the wheel or at work. It may mean you have narcolepsy, which often goes undiagnosed for years before people who have it get a correct diagnosis.

In this blog, double board certificated sleep specialist and neurologist Dr. Samit Malhotra of Sleep & Neuroscience Associates explains how narcolepsy is diagnosed.

What is narcolepsy?

It's a neurological sleep disorder that affects the control of sleep and wakefulness. It occurs roughly equally in men and women, and it blurs the normal boundary between being asleep and being awake.

What are its symptoms?

The following are some of the most common symptoms of this sleep disorder:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness – This occurs even if you’ve had enough sleep at night.
  • Intermittent, uncontrollable “sleep attacks” during the day
  • Mental cloudiness and a lack of concentration
  • Sleep paralysis – The muscle paralysis that happens during REM sleep occurs during waking hours. It can make your legs, arms, or trunk weak and cause your jaw to be slack for anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
  • Sudden muscle weakness (cataplexy) – This involves feeling weak as well as having a loss of muscle control. You may also have slurred speech or even collapse. In addition, you may experience intense emotions including anger, surprise, or laughter.
  • Hallucinations and paralysis while you’re falling asleep or waking up – These are often vivid and frightening.
  • Disrupted nighttime sleep
  • Vivid nightmares

What are the causes?

Its causes aren’t yet completely understood. Experts think there may be genes that are associated with the disorder. Others think that brain abnormalities may be involved, or it may be related to a chemical called hypocretin, which is produced by the brain and regulates arousal and wakefulness.

Experts think that several of these factors most likely work together to cause narcolepsy.

In addition, the following factors may increase your risk of having this disorder:

  • A family history of the disorder
  • A brain injury from an incident like a stroke, tumor, or head trauma
  • Some types of autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis

How is it diagnosed?

Narcolepsy should be diagnosed by a sleep specialist, who will conduct a physical exam and talk to you about your medical history and symptoms.

In addition, testing such as a sleep study (also called a polysomnogram), which measures and records data including your breathing, brain activity, heart rate, and more while you’re sleeping, may be used. Your doctor may also order a multiple sleep latency test (MSLT), which measures how fast your fall asleep in a quiet environment during the day.

What are the treatment options?

There’s not a known cure, but several treatments can help control it. They may include the following:

  • Lifestyle modifications – You may be able to avoid and better control emotional triggers that can cause muscle weakness. In addition, taking scheduled naps during the day can help lessen your symptoms.
  • Medication – Several different types of medication can be used to treat narcolepsy, including the following:
    • Ritalin – helps improve alertness and reduce excessive daytime sleepiness
    • Provigil (modafinil) – helps reduce excessive daytime sleepiness
    • Antidepressants – includes Prozac, Anafranil, and Tofranil and can help reduce the frequency of cataplexy

If you’re experiencing symptoms of narcolepsy, make an appointment today with Sleep & Neuroscience Associates. We’ll conduct any testing necessary to be able to diagnose the cause of your symptoms and devise an effective treatment plan.

Thank you! We will get back to you as soon as possible.

Request an Appointment