Narcolepsy and Potential Complications

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on March 10, 2023
4 min read

Since narcolepsy can make you suddenly feel sleepy at any time, while doing anything, it can bring challenges in many areas of daily life. Other narcolepsy symptoms, like poor sleep at night and sudden attacks of muscle weakness (cataplexy), can also complicate things. But there are ways you can reduce the risks and keep doing the things you enjoy.

Narcolepsy can cause complications with:

Work and school. Narcolepsy can make it hard to learn or do your job well. If you often get sleepy while you study, attend class, or work, it affects your concentration. You might not be able to read what you were writing, or you may often lose things. If they don't know about your condition, people you work or go to school with may think you’re lazy or don’t care about your performance.

Caring for a household. Feeling sleepy during the day makes child care and household chores more challenging than they are already. And when you have cataplexy, you might not be able to move, speak, or keep your eyes open for brief periods. When you’re a caregiver, you should know that cataplexy is often triggered by intense emotions like surprise, laughter, or anger.

Relationships. Narcolepsy can also make it hard to function in social settings. If you suddenly get super-sleepy when you’re socializing or talking with friends, you’ll miss a lot. Others may not understand what’s happening, especially if you nod off or have cataplexy, which can make you do things like slur your speech or fall to the floor.

You may worry that emotions you feel when you’re with others, like joy or anger, could trigger an episode of cataplexy. That can drive a wedge into your relationships.

Isolation. Dealing with narcolepsy can make you feel stressed, embarrassed, and alone. It’s natural to feel upset if you think other people view you as lazy or lacking energy. Plus, fear of sleep attacks or cataplexy can make you want to avoid social situations. All of these feelings can lead you to withdraw from friends and gatherings.

Injuries. Routine tasks like walking downstairs, cooking, or driving become dangerous if you suddenly fall asleep or lose muscle control while you’re doing them. You're at risk of cutting or burning yourself, for example, if you have a sleep attack while preparing food.

People with narcolepsy are up to four times more likely to have car accidents. If you’re not treating your narcolepsy with medication, you’re even more likely to have one.

The risk of injury is one of the main reasons you need treatment for your narcolepsy. Talk to your doctor about your situation and discuss ways to lower your risk of accidents. You may be able to keep driving if your narcolepsy is well-controlled and you get regular checkups.

Beyond treating your narcolepsy, there are many ways to deal with these complications.

It's not always easy to talk about your narcolepsy, but letting your teachers, boss, and friends know about it will help them understand what's going on with you.

After you've had narcolepsy for a while, you'll get to know what times and situations make your symptoms worse. That can help you figure out strategies to manage them. You might take your stimulant meds before you drive or go to a party, for example.

At school, work, or home:

  • Schedule short naps throughout the day.
  • Do tasks you find less interesting at the times of day when you feel most alert
  • Take frequent breaks to stand up and walk around
  • If you control the thermostat, keeping it on the cool side may help you stay awake

To help you sleep better at night:

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol later in the day.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule.
  • Exercise every day.
  • Avoid smoking, especially at night.
  • Avoid big meals right before bedtime.
  • Relax before bedtime with a warm bath.
  • Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet space.
  • Limit cell phone and computer use at night.

It may seem challenging to fit some of these measures, like regular naps, into routines at work or school. But the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers and schools to let you make these changes so you or your child can effectively work or learn.

Support from friends, family, and others can make you feel a lot better. Counseling can help you deal with anxiety, depression, and other emotional issues related to dealing with narcolepsy.

Connecting with others who have narcolepsy, through online or in-person support groups, can also help you learn ways to cope.