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Primary Hypersomnia Treatment & Management

  • Author: Adrian Preda, MD; Chief Editor: Iqbal Ahmed, MBBS, FRCPsych(UK)  more...
Updated: Jan 09, 2015

Approach Considerations

Severe idiopathic hypersomnolence is a disabling problem that often leads to permanent unemployment and responds poorly to medical treatment.[9, 8] Moreover, because the underlying cause of idiopathic hypersomnolence is unknown, treatment remains symptomatic in nature.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine practice parameters state that successful treatment of hypersomnia of central origin requires an accurate diagnosis, individual tailoring of therapy to produce maximum possible return of function, and regular follow-up to monitor response to therapy.

Modafinil, sodium oxybate, amphetamine, methamphetamine, dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate, and selegiline are effective treatments for excessive sleepiness associated with narcolepsy and primary hypersomnias. Scheduled naps can be beneficial to combat sleepiness in these patients.[28]

Behavioral approaches and sleep hygiene techniques are recommended, although they have little overall positive impact on this disease.


The diagnosis of hypersomnolence is made after excluding neurologic, pulmonary, and psychiatric disorders known to cause excessive sleepiness. Therefore, if an underlying cause is suggested, appropriate consultations with a neurologist, pulmonologist, and psychiatrist should be obtained.


Caution is recommended in activities in which hypersomnolence may be hazardous.


Pharmacologic Therapy

Medications that have been used in the treatment of this disorder include tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), clonidine, levodopa, bromocriptine, amantadine, methysergide, pemoline (as of October 2005, this is no longer available in the United States; risk of liver toxicity outweighs benefits), and modafinil. (Patients develop tolerance to their medications; exercise caution in prescribing drugs.)

Therapy for idiopathic hypersomnolence involves maintaining the patient on a daily use of stimulants. The drug dose is titrated so that the patient stays alert during the day, but adverse effects should be avoided.

Methylphenidate (Ritalin), mazindol (withdrawn from the US market in 2001), and dextroamphetamine are the most commonly prescribed medications.


Modafinil has proved clinically useful in the treatment of narcolepsy and other causes of excessive daytime sleepiness, such as idiopathic hypersomnolence.[29] It is a psychostimulant that enhances wakefulness and vigilance, but its pharmacologic profile is notably different from the amphetamines, methylphenidate, or cocaine. Modafinil is less likely to produce side effects such as jitteriness, anxiety, or excess locomotor activity or to lead to a hypersomnolent rebound effect. It is long-acting; the normal elimination half-life of modafinil in humans is between 12-15 hours.[3, 30]

The mechanism of action of modafinil is not fully understood. Modafinil induces wakefulness in part by its action in the anterior hypothalamus. Its dopamine-releasing action in the nucleus accumbens is weak and dose dependent; the likelihood of a euphoric response, and, therefore, the abuse potential and tolerance, is small.

Modafinil has central alpha 1-adrenergic agonist effects (ie, it directly stimulates the receptors). Modafinil inhibits the reuptake of noradrenaline by the noradrenergic terminals on sleep-promoting neurons of the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus (VLPO). More significant, perhaps, is its ability to increase excitatory glutaminergic transmission and reduce local gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)–ergic transmission, thereby diminishing GABA(A) receptor signaling on the mesolimbic dopamine terminals.[30, 31]


Physician Legal Responsibilities

Physicians have a legal responsibility to know which medical conditions may impede driving ability, to diagnose these conditions in their patients, and to discuss the implications of these conditions.

The requirement to report unfit drivers varies among different jurisdictions, and interpretations of the law vary among the courts. Therefore, a physician’s risk of liability is unclear. Physicians may face legal action by their patients if they fail to counsel the patients on the dangers of driving associated with certain medications or medical conditions.

Physicians’ legal responsibilities to report patients with certain medical conditions, when required by law, override their ethical responsibilities to keep patients’ medical information confidential.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Adrian Preda, MD Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Director of Residency Program in Psychiatry, Vice-Chair, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine

Adrian Preda, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Psychiatric Association, International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, International Congress of Schizophrenia Research, Schizophrenia International Research Society, Society of Biological Psychiatry

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Iqbal Ahmed, MBBS, FRCPsych(UK) Faculty, Department of Psychiatry, Tripler Army Medical Center; Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Clinical Professor of Geriatric Medicine, University of Hawaii, John A Burns School of Medicine

Iqbal Ahmed, MBBS, FRCPsych(UK) is a member of the following medical societies: Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine, American Neuropsychiatric Association, American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology, Royal College of Psychiatrists, American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, American Psychiatric Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Jennifer S Morse, MD Associate Medical Director, Optum Health

Jennifer S Morse, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine, Aerospace Medical Association, and American Psychiatric Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

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Primary hypersomnia. Polysomnographic study demonstrates apnea (absence of carbon dioxide fluctuation indicating no flow), chest wall paradox, abrupt increase in tidal volume at the end of apnea, and oxygen desaturation. All of these features are consistent with obstructive sleep apnea.
Primary hypersomnia. In contrast to obstructive sleep apnea, mixed apnea shows absence of respiratory efforts in the first segment of the apnea.
Primary hypersomnia. Periodic limb movements show intermittent leg electromyogram activity accompanied by electroencephalogram arousals.
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