Narcolepsy: Symptoms and Causes
April 05, 2021 | Farah Jassawalla

Narcolepsy: Symptoms and Causes


Narcolepsy or narcolepsy sleep disorder is a DSM-V characterized condition. It is described as a chronic sleep disorder in which the individual experiences irresistible drowsiness and abrupt attacks of sleep when it is not expected, like in the daytime.

Narcoleptic people experience difficulty staying awake even after an optimum amount of sleep at night. They are unable to stay awake when that sudden attack of sleep comes, no matter the situation or circumstance. This affects their daily life routine and causes disruptions in their work and relationships.

Types of Narcolepsy

In narcolepsy, the individual experiences cataplexy i.e. the sudden loss of muscle tone for a few minutes. The individual is unable to talk or move during a cataplexy attack. This characteristic differentiates narcolepsy type 1 from narcolepsy type 2; narcolepsy type 1 includes cataplexy, while there is no occurrence of cataplexy in narcolepsy type 2.


The symptoms of narcolepsy may worsen from mild to severe in a matter of months and may continue for life as there is no medical or therapeutic cure for it. These symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, cataplexy (in type 1 narcolepsy), sleep paralysis, changes in REM sleep and hallucinations.

The individual suffers from an inability to stay awake and falls asleep anywhere, no matter the circumstances. They may sleep during a social gathering, in the shower, during driving, at work; all without warning. This sleep may last 15 to 30 minutes, with the person waking up refreshed only to feel sleepy after some time. The resultant lessened focus and concentration on the surroundings or task at hand during daytime disrupt the daily tasks and routine of the individual.

Cataplexy or loss of muscle tone is sudden and out of the control of the individual. They may experience physical symptoms like slurred speech and weak muscle movement throughout the body. It often happens due to the experience of strong and sudden emotions like excitement, anger, shock, or surprise. Not all those who suffer from narcolepsy experience the same number of cataplexy episodes.

Sleep paralysis consists of temporary short-term episodes experienced by narcoleptics; they are unable to move or speak for a few minutes during or after they wake up from sleep. The individual is aware of the sleep paralysis at the moment it occurs but usually forgets about it afterward. The temporary paralysis or immobility is a specific characteristic of narcolepsy and tends to be frightening for those experiencing it. Sleep paralysis can by itself also afflict people and is thus categorized as a separate disorder.

Narcoleptic individuals may not be able to differentiate dreams from reality. The episodes in which they may not be fully asleep but start dreaming tend to confuse them about the reality of those dreams. These hallucinations occur right after they fall asleep, or right when they wake up.


The cause of narcolepsy is unknown. It may be genetic or occur due to malfunctions in the biological, neurological, or physiological parts of the body like a malfunction in the release of chemicals in the brain.

Risk factors

Individuals between 10 to 30 are at greater risk, as narcolepsy mostly starts in this age range. Similarly, a family history of narcolepsy increases the chance of occurring in the next generation.


As the cause of narcolepsy is unknown, there is no medical cure for it yet. Narcoleptic patients are often mistaken as lazy. They may get isolated and withdraw themselves from intimate relationships. As strong emotions such as anger or happiness trigger cataplexy, the individual feels emotionally withdrawn from others. The sudden sleep attacks put them at great risk for physical harm such as accidents while driving. Narcoleptic individuals are most likely to be obese due to low metabolism. To get in touch with a physician, book your online appointment now.

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Farah Jassawalla

Farah Jassawalla is a graduate of the Lahore School of Economics. She is also a writer, and healthcare enthusiast, having closely observed case studies while working with Lahore's thriving general physicians at their clinics.