In the normal process of falling asleep, we gradually drift into deeper phases of sleep before entering the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep. At the REM stage, our skeletal muscles are completely relaxed (essentially paralyzed). This pattern of falling asleep ensures that we will be laying down, or at least sitting down, when we enter REM sleep.

In people with narcolepsy, REM sleep can abnormally force itself upon the awake brain, resulting in an abrupt onset of overwhelming sleepiness. When this abnormal REM sleep is accompanied by muscle relaxation, these people also rapidly lose muscle strength, resulting in falls or apparent paralysis (cataplexy). Other aspects of narcolepsy disrupt nighttime sleep and result in overall increased daytime sleepiness.

The initial onset of symptoms usually begins in the teens or twenties, though it can occur later. Many people are not diagnosed for ten to twenty years after symptoms begin.

The health risk of narcolepsy is largely related to accidents. People with narcolepsy may also notice their schooling and work performance begin to suffer, which over time can result in significant social and economic burdens.

Medical treatment is often helpful for sufferers of narcolepsy. This is an area of sleep medicine where treatment options are improving. If you suspect you suffer from narcolepsy, due to the complexity of this condition, evaluation and treatment by a sleep specialist is advised.