What is Neurology and When Should You See a Neurologist?
What is neurology and when do you need to see a neurologist or neurosurgeon? For many patients, navigating these terms and finding the right care for their condition can be confusing.
What is neurology?
Neurology is the branch of medicine that deals with the anatomy, function and disorders of the nervous system.
What is the nervous system?
The nervous system is made up on the brain, spinal cord and a network of nerves throughout your body. Your nervous system controls your movement, thoughts, physical responses and bodily processes and is made of two parts two parts: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.
Central nervous system
The central nervous system is made of the brain and spinal cord. The brain is responsible for how we think, feel, learn, remember and move. The spinal cord delivers messages between the body and the brain.
Peripheral nervous system
The peripheral nervous system refers to the nerves outside the central nervous system and is responsible for sending information back and forth from your body to your brain. It has two ways of sending this information, which are known as autonomic and somatic processes.
- Autonomic - The autonomic nervous system manages processes that your body performs without you thinking about it, like your heartbeat, blood pressure and digestion.
- Somatic - The somatic nervous system manages processes that you control. This includes movement and muscle control throughout your body. This also includes input from your four senses: smell, taste, hearing and touch.
What is the difference between a neurologist and a neurosurgeon?
Neurologists and neurosurgeons both treat conditions affecting the nervous system, but neurosurgeons preform surgery, while neurologists don’t. For some conditions, a neurologist and neurosurgeon may work together to coordinate a care plan for a patient that includes surgery and additional therapies. For other patients, a neurologist may be the only physician that is needed to treat their condition, as many treatment options do not require surgery.
Examples of some of common conditions treated by neurologist include:
- Headaches and migraines
- Radiculopathy, or pinched nerves
- Neuropathy, or nerve damage, usually in the hands or feet
- Walking/gait disorders
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Neuromuscular diseases, like multiple sclerosis and ALS
- Neurocognitive disorders, like Alzheimer's disease
Examples of common conditions treated by a neurosurgeon include:
- Brain tumors
- Chronic pain in your back or neck
- Herniated disks
- Spinal stenosis
- Spinal fractures
- Spinal tumors
- Spinal deformities, such as scoliosis and spondylolisthesis
- Traumatic head, brain, neck or spine injuries
Are there different kinds of neurologists?
Some neurologists subspecialize in certain parts of the nervous system. This may include:
- Clinical neurophysiology - Clinical neurophysiologists specialize in the treatment of the central and peripheral nervous system as well as the electric activity in the brain, spinal cord and muscles
- Vascular neurology- Vascular neurologists specialize in the treatment of conditions that deal with the blood vessels in the brain and spinal cord. Vascular neurologists are sometimes known as “stroke doctors.”
- Neuromuscular – Neurologists specializing in neuromuscular disorders deal with conditions that affect the nerves and muscles. This includes conditions like multiple sclerosis and ALS.
- Neurocritical care – Neurologists specializing in neurocritical care work to treat complex and serious neurological illness and injury, such as severe strokes, brain and spine injuries and meningitis.
- Neuro-oncology – Neuro-oncology neurologists focus on the treatment of cancerous brain tumors
- Pediatric neurologist - Pediatric neurologists care for children and young adults with neurological disorders. Since neurological disorders vary among infants, children and adults, having a neurologist who specializes in pediatrics is essential to caring for a child’s unique needs.
When should I see a neurologist?
There are many symptoms that may lead someone to seek care from a neurologist. Some of the most common are:
- Recurring headaches or migraines
- Numbness, weakness or tingling
- Trouble with movement, balance or coordination
- Memory problems or confusion
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it may be appropriate to talk to your primary care doctor about seeing a neurologist.
What can I expect for an appointment with a neurologist?
For most people, a neurological disorder is not the first diagnosis. In order to assess you needs, your care team will conduct a complete review of your medical history and recommend certain tests be done to make certain there are no underlying causes for your neurological condition or any genetically passed disorders.
During a neurological examination, the neurologist or neurology advanced practice provider, such as a nurse practitioner, will review the patient’s health history in depth while paying close attention to the neurological complaints. A typical neurological exam will test mental status, the ability to see, smell, hear and control the muscles in your head and neck, strength, coordination, reflexes, sensation and walking pattern This information helps guide the provider to determine whether a problem exists in the nervous system.
Determining the root of your symptoms is the key to receiving a diagnosis. Once a diagnosis emerges, more testing may be needed to guide treatment.
This additional testing may include:
- CT Scan
- Magnetic resonance imaging
- Electroencephalography (EEG)
- Electromyography (EMG)