There is no cure for narcolepsy, but medications and lifestyle modifications can help you manage the symptoms.
Medications for narcolepsy include:
Stimulants. Drugs that stimulate the central nervous system are the primary treatment to help people with narcolepsy stay awake during the day. Doctors often try modafinil (Provigil) or armodafinil (Nuvigil) first for narcolepsy because it isn't as addictive as older stimulants and doesn't produce the highs and lows often associated with older stimulants. Side effects of modafinil are uncommon, but they may include headache, nausea or dry mouth.
Some people need treatment with methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin, others) or various amphetamines. These medications are very effective but may sometimes cause side effects such as nervousness and heart palpitations and can be addictive.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Doctors often prescribe these medications, which suppress REM sleep, to help alleviate the symptoms of cataplexy, hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis. They include fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem, others) and venlafaxine (Effexor XR). Side effects can include sexual dysfunction and digestive problems.
- Tricyclic antidepressants. These older antidepressants, such as protriptyline (Vivactil), imipramine (Tofranil) and clomipramine (Anafranil), are effective for cataplexy, but many people complain of side effects, such as dry mouth and lightheadedness.
- Sodium oxybate (Xyrem). This medication is highly effective for cataplexy. Sodium oxybate helps to improve nighttime sleep, which is often poor in narcolepsy. In high doses it may also help control daytime sleepiness. It must be taken in two doses, one at bedtime and one up to four hours later. Xyrem can have serious side effects, such as nausea, bed-wetting and worsening of sleepwalking. Taking sodium oxybate together with other sleeping medications, narcotic pain relievers or alcohol can lead to difficulty breathing, coma and death.
If you have other health problems, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, ask your doctor how the medications you take for your other conditions may interact with those taken for narcolepsy.
Certain over-the-counter drugs, such as allergy and cold medications, can cause drowsiness. If you have narcolepsy, your doctor will likely recommend that you avoid taking these medications.
Emerging treatments being investigated for narcolepsy include hypocretin replacement, hypocretin gene therapy, stem cell transplant, skin temperature manipulation and immunotherapy, but further research is needed to confirm their effectiveness.
Oct. 24, 2012
- Ahmed I, et al. Clinical features, diagnosis and treatment of narcolepsy. Clinics in Chest Medicine. 2010;31:371.
- Narcolepsy fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/narcolepsy/detail_narcolepsy.htm. Accessed Sept. 9, 2012.
- What is narcolepsy? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/nar/. Accessed Sept. 9, 2012.
- Longo DL, et al. Harrison's Online. 18th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2012. http://www.accessmedicine.com/resourceTOC.aspx?resourceID=4. Accessed Sept. 1, 2012.
- Cao M. Advances in narcolepsy. Medicine Clinics of North America. 2010;94:541.
- Overeem S, et al. Narcolepsy. Sleep Medicine Clinics. 2012;7:263.
- Silber MH (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Sept. 10, 2012.
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