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Are Sleep Apnea and Narcolepsy Related?

Posted by Janet Vanderveen on

We’ve all found ourselves feeling tired or sleepy during the day, but we can usually figure out what the cause of our problem is: If we stay up too late at night, we feel tired the next day. That being said, daytime sleepiness can also be attributed to medical conditions such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy which are both serious medical problems that require attention.


If you find yourself dozing off during a board meeting or presentation, it may be a good idea to identify what is causing the problem. Looking at the differences between these two sleep disorders can help determine the diagnosis.


The first step in figuring out the issue is to take our sleep quiz here.


The second step is recognizing the symptoms of these two sleeping disorders. Read on to discover them.

If you can’t stop falling asleep

Narcolepsy occurs without warning and can happen anytime, anywhere. People with this condition suffer from sleep attacks in which they are overcome with the urge to sleep combined with a sudden loss of muscle control known as cataplexy. Episodes of falling asleep can occur several times throughout the day and people suffering from the condition may experience frightening dreams and/or hallucinations when they fall asleep.


Diagnosis of this condition involves getting a physical examination and blood work or other tests. Having a sleep study completed is essential in determining whether night time sleep cycles are affected.

If you always feel tired

Obstruction of the airway during sleep can cause sleep apnea which leads to sleepiness during the day. Waking up repeatedly during the night causes tiredness and lethargy the next day. Snoring is generally associated with sleep apnea and the condition occurs more frequently as a person ages. The long term lack of oxygen that occurs as a result of sleep apnea can lead to medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and depression.

What are the differences?

People diagnosed with sleep apnea have symptoms of sleep deprivation whereas a person with narcolepsy cannot control falling asleep at any time or place. As a rule, narcolepsy starts in adolescence and rarely occurs when someone is in their 30’s or 40’s.


Sleep apnea, on the other hand, is more common in people over 40. Another difference between the two conditions can be attributed to the cause; sleep apnea occurs due to the malfunctioning in the brain or obstructions in the airway and narcolepsy is the result of nerve cells that malfunction.

The treatments

There is no cure for narcolepsy, but it can be managed through medication and lifestyle changes. Finding the right treatment may be difficult but doctors generally prescribe stimulants, to help people stay awake during the day or antidepressants to help with sleep paralysis or nightmares and hallucinations. Lifestyle changes include establishing a consistent sleep schedule, short 20 minute naps throughout the day and regular exercise.


Depending on the individual, sleep apnea can be treated in many ways. CPAP therapy, weight management, positional therapy and surgery are examples of the diversity of treatment for sleep apnea. Lifestyle changes include eliminating alcohol and smoking, exercise and weight loss.


Do you have more questions related to sleep apnea and other sleeping disorders? We can help.


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