Difference Between Narcolepsy and Sleep Apnea

Main Difference – Narcolepsy vs Sleep Apnea

Narcolepsy and Sleep apnea are two types of sleep disturbances which share the common feature of excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). They have different onsets and etiologies, but since the externally shown EDS is significantly highlighted in both conditions, they are often misidentified by many people including well-experienced health care professionals. The main difference between narcolepsy and sleep apnea is their etiology; narcolepsy occurs due to the loss of neuropeptide-hypocretin in the brain as a result of an autoimmune cause whereas sleep apnea occurs as a result of some dysfunction of the brain, or obstruction of the airway tract.

This article explains,

1. What is Narcolepsy?
     – Causes, Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

2. What is Sleep Apnea?
     – Causes, Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

3.What is the difference between Narcolepsy and Sleep Apnea?


Difference Between Narcolepsy and Sleep Apnea - Comparison Summary

What is Narcolepsy

This is a type of sleep disturbance, characterised by excessive sleepiness, sleep paralysis, hallucinations and episodes of cataplexy-partial or complete loss of muscle control, generally triggered by strong emotions such as excitement, laughter and fear.


Narcolepsy is known to be a result of the loss of neuropeptide-Hypocretin in the brain, mostly due to an autoimmune cause. Certain research studies show that there is a huge role played by genetics as well.

Most narcoleptic people fall into the group of children or adolescents; both men and women are equally affected. Therefore, the diagnosis becomes a bit difficult as the features existing from childhood will appear vague and unnoticeable, even if they reach a level which interferes the quality of life as adults.

Commonest Presentation

  • Excessive sleepiness during day time where most of the individuals tend to fall asleep even without knowing while engaging in day to day
  • Difficulty in finding out if a person is awake or asleep even when the person is completely up.
  • Cataplexy or muscle paralysis of Rapid Eye Moving sleep (REM), is a prominent sign of Narcolepsy, which can lead to a sudden loss of muscle tone with slack jaw and weakness of limbs or trunk.
  • Hallucinations
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Sleep disturbances at night sometimes associated nightmares.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Narcolepsy is usually diagnosed by a complete history from the patient along with a thorough physical examination. Some doctors may even recommend a series of sleep studies, in order to establish an accurate diagnosis.

Although there is no exact cure for narcolepsy, various psychological interventions like counselling and supportive therapy (medication and behavioural treatment) are known to improve symptoms, thus increasing the overall quality of life in an effective manner.

Main Difference - Narcolepsy vs Sleep Apnea

What is Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a type of sleeping disorder, where the affected individual tends to take one or more pauses, varying from few seconds to minutes, on breathing during sleep. Some people might also show noticeable episodes of shallow breathing in between these pauses; the nature of sleep will eventually transfer from deep sleep to light sleep, significantly reducing the quality of sleep.

When this sleep pattern lasts over several days to months to years, the particular person will appear to become fatigued, tired, lazy and weak, showing excessive daytime sleepiness or falling asleep while working during the day time.

Types, Causes and Presentation

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the commonest form of sleep apnea which usually occurs in obese or overweight individuals due to collapsing or blockage of airways during sleep. These individuals will tend to snore heavily since they are in need of breathing against a collapse or blocked airway tract.

Central Sleep Apnea is another form of sleep apnea in which the part of the brain, responsible for sending signals to breathing muscles do not perform well, such that there will be brief episodes of no breathing even though all the other systems of the body are working properly.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your doctor will take a complete history from you and carry out a series of sleep studies to establish the diagnosis of sleep apnea, and some further physical examinations will be carried out in order to find out the root cause.

Most cases of sleep apnea will improve once the etiology is eliminated. In fact, Obstructive sleep apneic patients will be encouraged to pay attention to consuming a well-balanced diet with routine exercises and central sleep apneic patients might have to make use of mouthpieces and other breathing devices. Moreover, patients suffering from severe sleep apnea with anatomical abnormalities might have to undergo surgical interventions which will completely resolve the condition.Difference Between Narcolepsy and Sleep Apnea

Difference Between Narcolepsy and Sleep Apnea

Narcolepsy and Sleep apnea are two types of sleep disturbances which are characterised by excessive daytime sleepiness due to reduced quality of night sleep. Major differences between these two conditions include the time of onset and pathophysiology behind them.

Age Group 

Narcolepsy usually affects children and adolescence.

Sleep apnea can mostly be seen in individuals over 40 years of age.


As far as the pathophysiology behind these two types is considered,

Narcolepsy occurs due to the loss of neuropeptide-Hypocretin in the brain as a result of an autoimmune cause.

Sleep apnea is known to occur as a result of some dysfunction of the brain (central sleep apnea), obstruction of the airway tract (obstructive sleep apnea) or both (mixed sleep apnea).


Narcolepsy is usually treated with medications, supportive and behavioural therapy.

The treatment for Sleep apnea mainly depends on the etiology which might need CPAP or even surgical therapy.

Image Courtesy:

“Obstruction ventilation apnée sommeil” By English: Credits to Habib M’henni / Wikimedia Commons – Own work based on: sleep apnea 03 (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia

“1331407” (Public Domain) via Pixabay

About the Author: Embogama

Embogama is a passionate freelance writer for several years. Her areas of interest include general medicine, clinical medicine, health and fitness, Ayurveda medicine, psychology, counseling and piano music