What is the Connection Between Sleep Apnea and Narcolepsy?

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  • Written By: Synthia L. Rose
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 23 October 2019
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Sleep apnea and narcolepsy are both sleep disorders. At night, sleep apnea and narcolepsy inhibit rapid eye movement (R.E.M) sleep, prompting overwhelming daytime drowsiness. Sufferers of sleep apnea and narcolepsy frequently dose off during the day, creating dangerous driving and working conditions.

People with sleep apnea intermittently and spontaneously stop breathing at night. This chokes off oxygen to the brain, causing the sleeper to abruptly awaken. It is not uncommon for sufferers of sleep apnea to awaken 400 to 800 times a night because they have stopped breathing; the tendency creates a high risk for nighttime heart attacks. While most return to sleep quickly, the quality of sleep is poor and leaves the affected person feeling unrested or feeling like they have not slept at all. As many as four in 10 people live with sleep apnea.

Narcolepsy is not as typical as sleep apnea; fewer than one in 10 people have this sleep disorder. Due to its rarity, narcolepsy is often not diagnosed quickly or accurately. Reports state that many people who develop narcolepsy as children spend decades without being formally diagnosed. This neurological condition is often hereditary.


Other sleeping abnormalities may accompany narcolepsy. Sleep paralysis is one possible side effect of narcolepsy; this fleeting paralysis prevents a person from moving for several seconds or minutes even if they are fully awake and conscious. Another anomaly associated with narcolepsy is cataplexy, which creates scenarios where persons who are awake may suddenly fall to the ground because they are so lethargic they lack the power to exert control over their muscles. Dream deprivation may cause narcoleptics to dream while they are awake, resulting in hallucinations.

Daily performance is frequently impaired in people with sleep apnea and narcolepsy. The lack of sleep may reduce memory and mental clarity. As a consequence, decision-making and professional output may suffer. Physical ailments like stress and hypertension are also common among sufferers of sleep apnea and narcolepsy. Those with these disorders may be more prone to disease and infection because the sleep deficits tend to weaken the immune system.

Behavior therapy and medication can treat both sleep apnea and narcolepsy. People with narcolepsy often use stimulants and sodium oxybate for treatment; lifestyle changes like arranging daytime naps are also recommended by doctors. Patients with sleep apnea are often advised to reduce their weight since excess fat is one contributing factor for the disorder. Throat and jaw surgery to augment airways to increase oxygen flow at night is typically used for extreme cases where apnea’s tendency to halt breathing can cause death.


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