Narcolepsy: Symptoms and Causes | Tampa General Hospital


Narcolepsy features uncontrollable and sudden attacks of deep sleep. Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by sudden, overwhelming and uncontrollable attacks of deep sleep, sometimes accompanied by paralysis and hallucinations. Though often brief, these attacks can be detrimental to everyday living and can heighten the risk for accidents and injuries.  

Causes of Narcolepsy 

The direct cause of narcolepsy appears to be a loss of a chemical in the brain called hypocretin, though this is not always the case. Hypocretin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate the cycle of sleep and wakefulness. People who have a reduced amount of hypocretin may experience the excessive sleepiness associated with narcolepsy. 

Other potential causes of narcolepsy include: 

  • A family history of the condition  
  • Infections 
  • Brain injuries or tumors 
  • Autoimmune disorders 
  • Pesticides 
  • Secondhand smoke 
  • Heavy metals  

Narcolepsy Symptoms

The primary symptom that all people with narcolepsy experience is excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), which can interfere with everyday life and activities. Related symptoms can include extreme exhaustion, brain fog, a lack of energy, little to no concentration, lapses in memory and depression.  

Other narcolepsy symptoms include: 

  • Being disrupted during the sleep cycle at night 
  • Experiencing a sudden loss of muscle tone or strength, triggered by fear, surprise, laughter and other emotions (cataplexy) 
  • Experiencing sleep paralysis 
  • Having hallucinations 
  • Falling asleep but continuing to perform tasks, such as eating, talking or driving 

Diagnosing Narcolepsy 

To diagnose narcolepsy, a physician will perform a physical exam and medical history and check medications and symptoms.  

In addition, a patient may be asked to: 

  • Participate in two sleep studies called a polysomnogram (PSG) and the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) 
  • Keep a sleep journal to record symptoms and hours of sleep each night  
  • Wear an actigraph, or a motion-senor wristlet 

Treatments for Narcolepsy 

People who are affected by narcolepsy often take medications, such as stimulants, sodium oxbate and antidepressants to control their symptoms. 

Plus, lifestyle changes are usually suggested to treat and manage narcolepsy symptoms. For example, a doctor may recommend: 

  • Keeping to a sleep/wake schedule 
  • Avoiding alcohol and caffeine  
  • Quitting smoking 
  • Exercising each day, but not within three hours of going to bed 
  • Keeping the bedroom dark and quiet without the use of a TV or personal electronics  

Tampa General Hospital’s Neuroscience Institute is a leader in diagnosing and treating sleep disorders, including narcolepsy. Our entire team of specialists collaborate to form highly personalized treatment plans for patients.