The first step to managing the symptoms of narcolepsy is to consult with a trusted primary care physician. Doctors can screen patients to ensure that their symptoms are truly caused by narcolepsy, or if they are caused by another condition like sleep apnea, sleep deprivation, parasomnia, depression or anxiety. Primary care physicians use clinical criteria to evaluate if a person actually has narcolepsy.
However, because doctors only have limited, general knowledge of sleep disorders, they often are not qualified to give an official narcolepsy diagnosis or provide treatment recommendations. It’s crucial that patients receive treatment and diagnosis from specialists. In most cases, care starts with a sleep specialist. Primary care doctors can refer patients to reputable, local sleep specialists.
Sleep specialists have the clinical experience and professional equipment needed to evaluate a patient’s symptoms and administer accurate diagnostic tests. One of the most common test is the polysomnogram, which tracks brainwaves, heart rate, eye movement and muscle contractions during sleep. Based on the results of the diagnostic tests, sleep specialists can diagnose sleep disorders. Specialists also work closely with patients to create treatment plans, which include identifying triggers, making lifestyle changes and taking medications. Depending on the specific symptoms that a person experiences, a sleep specialist may also recommend additional care from neurologists, pulmonologists, otolaryngologists or other medical professionals.
When someone first experiences symptoms of narcolepsy, it’s crucial that they receive medical attention as soon as possible. Without proper diagnosis, treatment and lifestyle changes, many daily activities can be potentially hazardous for people with this sleep disorder, including driving, operating other heavy machinery, crossing the street, caring for children and cooking. Between 30 and 50 percent of individuals with narcolepsy report having or almost having accidents because of symptoms associated with the condition.