What is Involved in a Diagnosis of Narcolepsy?

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  • Written By: Meshell Powell
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects the portion of the brain responsible for regulating the states of being awake or asleep. Some potential symptoms of narcolepsy include extreme drowsiness during the day or spontaneously falling asleep, even in the middle of activities such as working or driving. Obtaining an accurate diagnosis of narcolepsy can sometimes be difficult, as some of the symptoms may mimic other conditions. Sleep study tests and spinal fluid analysis are often performed when attempting to diagnose this condition.

Hypocretin is a chemical found in the brain that works to regulate normal sleep cycles. Scientists have discovered a decrease in this chemical among those who suffer from narcolepsy. Research is being done to find a way to supplement this chemical deficiency in patience who have obtained a diagnosis of narcolepsy. It is believed that both heredity and environmental factors may play a role in who develops narcolepsy.

Many times, the only symptom a patient experiences is extreme daytime sleepiness. This prevents or delays many people from seeking a diagnosis of narcolepsy. Sometimes, this condition is misdiagnosed as epilepsy or a sleep disorder unrelated to narcolepsy because some of the symptoms are remarkably similar. In fact, obtaining a diagnosis of narcolepsy can sometimes take several months or even several years.


When seeking a diagnosis of narcolepsy, the patient should write down all symptoms, even the ones that do not seem to have anything to do with a sleep disorder. This will often help the doctors in knowing which tests should be ordered to obtain a correct diagnosis. Often, a sleep questionnaire known as the Epworth Sleepiness Scale is filled out in order to provide more detailed information for doctors who specialize in sleep disorders.

The patient may be admitted to a clinic or hospital overnight for a sleep test known as a nocturnal polysomnogram. This test measures eye movement and electrical activity in the brain and heart while the patient sleeps. This can be particularly useful when attempting to make a diagnosis of narcolepsy. Another type of sleep test, called a multiple sleep latency test, measures the amount of time it takes for the patient to fall asleep.

A newer test used to obtain a diagnosis of narcolepsy is called a spinal fluid analysis. In this test, a sample of spinal fluid is removed from the body through a procedure known as a spinal tap or lumbar puncture. The levels of the chemical known as hypocretin are then analyzed. An absence of this chemical in the spinal fluid may lead to a definitive diagnosis of narcolepsy.


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