There is no U.S. FDA-approved treatment for IH. However, there are several treatments approved by the FDA for use in narcolepsy, and it is common practice to use wake-promoting medications that are known to be effective in patients with narcolepsy to treat the sleepiness associated with IH (this is called “off-label” use).
Most of these treatments for narcolepsy have not been studied to nearly the same extent in patients with idiopathic hypersomnia, and some patients with IH do not achieve adequate control of symptoms with these medications. These medications, in some cases, also may stop working over time and/or have bothersome side effects.
Researchers continue to test medications approved for other disorders, as well as novel treatments, for IH. Some patients with IH have found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also be helpful for learning skills to cope with IH.
More information about treatments, including some Australian-specific information, can be found HERE.
More information about prescription medication affordability in the U.S. can be found HERE.
Medications FDA-Approved for Sleepiness
There are three major classes of medications approved for the treatment of sleepiness associated with narcolepsy: stimulant medications (i.e., derivatives of amphetamines), non-stimulant wake-promoting medications (e.g., modafinil and armodafinil), and sodium oxybate.
Stimulants approved for the treatment of sleepiness in narcolepsy include dextroamphetamine (e.g., Dexedrine) and methylphenidate (e.g., Ritalin). While stimulants may be effective, potential side effects include dependence, aggressive behavior, dental problems, and heart problems.
Non-stimulant medications include modafinil and armodafinil. While it is not completely known how these medications work, they appear to influence the brain chemistry that increases wakefulness, particularly dopamine. Modafinil has been studied in two placebo-controlled trials that included patients with IH and has been shown to help with sleepiness in patients with this disorder. However, modafinil and armodafinil can interact with hormonal birth control to make it less effective (learn more about “Women and Hypersomnia” HERE), can result in a life-threatening rash, and are sometimes limited by associated headache.
In March 2019, the U.S. FDA approved a new medication (solriamfetol) for the treatment of sleepiness caused by narcolepsy and obstructive sleep apnea. This medication is expected to be available very soon under the brand name Sunosi. It has different pharmacology than either the stimulants or modafinil/armodafinil.
Sodium oxybate (Xyrem) is a medication taken at bedtime (and again during the night) that promotes deep sleep and improves daytime sleepiness in patients with narcolepsy; however, its effects in those with idiopathic hypersomnia are not as well characterized. Of the medications listed above, sodium oxybate is the only medication that treats both sleepiness and cataplexy.
A 2016 study found that sodium oxybate improved daytime sleepiness in people with IH to the same degree as in people with narcolepsy type 1. The drug also improved severe sleep inertia in 71% of people with IH.
Medications FDA-Approved for Cataplexy
Sodium oxybate is the only FDA-approved medication for cataplexy. Antidepressants, especially serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, are frequently used “off-label” to treat cataplexy.
Novel and Emerging Treatments for Sleepiness in Primary Hypersomnias
As the brain systems regulating sleepiness and wakefulness are better understood, scientists will be in a better position to design treatments that target key portions of this system. For example, based on the role of histamine in keeping people awake (and hence the common side effect of antihistamines such as diphenhydramine causing sleepiness), medications that act on histamine are under development for the treatment of excessive sleepiness. One such medication, pitolisant, is approved for the treatment of narcolepsy in Europe, but is not currently approved in the U.S. for any disorder. Pitolisant improved sleepiness in approximately ⅓ of IH patients whose symptoms did not respond well to other medications.
In the case of the primary hypersomnias related to excess activity of the GABA system, medications that could counteract this activity have potential to improve sleepiness. The antibiotic clarithromycin has been shown in a small, randomized trial to improve sleepiness and quality of life more than placebo. Another medication with actions on the GABA system, flumazenil, has also been used to treat sleepiness in IH patients whose sleepiness is not controlled with other medications.
Information about clinical trials for new treatments and how to access treatments that aren’t yet available in your home country can be found HERE.
In addition to medications, behavioral approaches are sometimes recommended. Short, planned naps can be helpful for sleepiness in people with narcolepsy. Unfortunately, for many people with IH, planned naps are not as helpful, because they tend to be long and refreshing, and it can be difficult to awaken from naps.
Although behavioral approaches have not been shown to improve EDS in people with IH, there may be benefits from therapy in learning to cope with this chronic disease. For example, in CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), one goal of therapy is to help patients learn to reduce their negative emotional responses (e.g. frustration, anger, depression) to their disease symptoms. This and other therapy styles can help people learn coping skills and adjust to the sometimes large lifestyle changes brought on by IH symptoms.
Finally, because symptoms of IH can affect school, work, and relationships, it can be important to educate people beyond the patient about IH. Some people with IH require educational or work accommodations so they can be successful in reaching their career goals, which requires a conversation between healthcare providers and school or employer about what IH is and how the symptoms affect people. Spouses, parents, and close friends also sometimes benefit from education about IH, so they can better understand IH symptoms and how these symptoms affect their loved one.
Free full text journal articles:
- A Practical Guide to the Therapy of Narcolepsy and Hypersomnia Syndromes by Emmanuel Mignot. Neurotherapeutics (2012) 9:739–752.
- Idiopathic Hypersomnia by Lynn Marie Trotti. Sleep Med Clin. 2017 Sep; 12(3): 331–344.
SomnusNooze articles about Treatments, including novel and emerging treatments.
Revised 8/2019 by Lynn Marie Trotti, MD, MSc, Chairperson, HF Medical Advisory Board