Neurologists specialize in studying and treating the brain and nervous system. They diagnose and treat problems that include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), epilepsy, migraine, and concussion. Here’s information about what they do and why you might someday get a referral to see one.
What Does a Neurologist Do?
Neurologists study and treat nervous system problems. Your nervous system includes your brain, spinal cord, and nerves in the rest of your body.
Some other conditions neurologists treat include:
- Brain and spinal cord injuries
- Multiple sclerosis
- Speech and language disorders
- Infections of the brain and peripheral nervous system
- Muscle weakness
Neurologists don’t do surgery. That’s what neurosurgeons do. These two types of doctors work together to treat some conditions.
You might use a neurologist as your main doctor if you have a neurological condition. Or, your neurologist might diagnose your problem and then work with your regular doctor.
How to Become a Neurologist
In the United States, neurologists attend 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, 1 year of internship, and then at least 3 years of training in a neurology residency program.
Neurologists can also have extra training in:
Pediatric neurologists treat children from birth to adolescence. They address many of the same conditions that adults have. They also have training to manage developmental problems and genetic conditions.
When to See a Neurologist
If you’re worried about symptoms that might be neurological, talk to your regular doctor. Your doctor might help you manage the problem or suggest you see a neurologist. There are many symptoms that could prompt a referral to a neurologist, including:
- Severe headaches
- Prolonged numbness or tingling or numbness on one side of the body
- Chronic pain, including pain with weakness or numbness
- Intense muscle weakness
- Problems walking
- Tremors that affect daily activities
- Certain vision problems
- Changes in your personality
- Trouble speaking
- Memory problems
- Sleep problems
Some neurologic problems, when they arise suddenly, can be signs of stroke. Some of the signs you should be aware of and get help for include:
- Tingling or numbness
- Weakness in your arm, hand, or leg
- Numbness on one side of your body
- Sudden trouble speaking
- Abrupt loss of vision
If you think you may be having a stroke, call 911.
What to Expect at Your Appointment
Your neurologist will ask all about your health history. You will also have a physical exam to test your coordination, reflexes, sight, strength, mental state, and sensation. The neurologist may order other tests such as:
- MRI: This test uses magnetic fields and radio waves to take pictures of your inner brain. You’ll lie down inside a machine for about 30 minutes.
- Computerized Tomography (CT) or Computer-Assisted Tomography (CAT) scans: X-rays and computers create multi-dimensional images of your body. A health care provider might inject dye to make arteries, blood vessels, tumors, or other areas visible in the image.
- Electroencephalogram (EEG): Electrodes attached to your scalp record your brain’s electrical activity.
- Transcranial Doppler (TCD): An ultrasound probe placed on your head measures blood flow in your brain by using sound waves.
- Spinal Tap or Lumbar Puncture: A doctor numbs your back and removes spinal fluid with a needle. Doctors can then check for bleeding, infection, and other disorders.
- Electromyogram (EMG): This test tracks electrical activity in your muscles and nerves to help find the cause of pain, numbness, and weakness. The doctor inserts small needles into your muscles to test activity. The doctor delivers mild shocks on the surface of your body to record nerve activity.
In addition to a physical exam and tests, you could receive a lot of information at your appointment. It can be helpful to bring a family member or friend with you. The person you bring can help listen, ask questions, and take notes.
American Academy of Neurology: “What Is a Neurologist?”
University of Rochester Highland Hospital Neurology: “What Is a Neurologist?”
Merck Manuals: “Overview of the Peripheral Nervous System.”
Brain & Life/American Academy of Neurology: “Working With Your Neurologist.”
University of Utah Health: “Should You See a Neurologist?”
Harvard Health Publishing: “Know the Signs of Stroke.”
Brain & Life/American Academy of Neurology: “Preparing For an Office Visit.”