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What is a Neurologist?

A neurologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment and management of illnesses that affect the brain, spine, muscles and the nervous system.
The Nervous System


Neurologists examine patients who have been referred to them by other physicians. There are many tests they can perform to diagnose a patient's illness. Depending on the symptoms, they may physically examine the nerves of the head and neck, or test the patient's balance, reflexes, muscle strength, and range of movement. They may also test the patient's cognitive abilities, including memory, speech, and sensation.

In order to get more information, neurologists often have images made of parts of the nervous system through computed axial tomography (CAT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). With these images they can usually diagnose the problem and prescribe a treatment plan.

Treatments vary depending on the neurological problem. They can include everything from referring the patient to a physiotherapist, to prescribing drugs, to recommending a surgical procedure.

Some neurologists specialize in certain parts of the nervous system or in specific procedures. For example, neurosurgeons specialize in surgical procedures related to the nervous system, such as the removal of brain tumors.

There are also many non-medical doctors, those with PhDs in subjects such as biology and chemistry, who study and research the nervous system. Working in labs in universities, hospitals, and private companies, these neuroscientists perform clinical and laboratory experiments and tests in order to learn more about the nervous system and find cures or new treatments for diseases and disorders.

There is a great deal of overlap between neuroscience and neurology. A large number of neurologists work in academic training hospitals, where they conduct research as neuroscientists in addition to treating patients and teaching neurology to medical students.

Medical conditions that are treated by neurologists include:

Neurology Subspecialties

A neurologist completes at least three years of specialized neurological training after graduating from medical school and completing a medical internship. Many neurologists complete additional training in neurology subspecialties, such as stroke, epilepsy, neuromuscular disease, and movement disorders.

The United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties recognizes 8 neurology subspecialties

  • Autononomic Disorders
  • Behavioral Neurology or Neuropsychiatry
  • Clinical Neuromuscular Pathology
  • Geriatric Neurology
  • Headache Medicine
  • Neurocritical care
  • Neuroimaging
  • Neuro-oncology

Other areas in which neurologists may specialize include chronic pain, sleep and stroke.

What Do Neurologists Do?

Neurologists diagnose complex neurological diseases by obtaining  a detailed health history of the patient, and performing a detailed neurological exam to assess a person's mental status, vision, strength, coordination, reflexes, and sensation.

Additional diagnostic tests may be ordered and interpreted by the neurologist. These include:

Head CT (Computerized Tomography of the head). The CT scan uses x-rays and computers to create multi-dimensional images of selected body parts. Dye may be injected into a patient's vein to obtain a clearer view.

EEG (Electroencephalogram). The EEG records the brain's continuous electrical activity through electrodes attached to the scalp. It is used to help diagnose structural diseases of the brain and episodes such as seizures, fainting, or blacking out. A neurologist may order this on patients who have had a seizure.

Electromyogram (EMG). An EMG measures and records electrical activity in the muscles and nerves. This may be helpful in determining the cause of pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the muscles or nerves. Small needles are inserted into the muscle and mild electrical shocks are given to stimulate the nerve (nerve conduction study). Discomfort may be associated with this test.

Evoked Potentials. This test records the brain's electrical response to visual, auditory, and sensory stimulation. This test is useful in evaluating and diagnosing symptoms if dizziness, numbness, and tingling, as well as visual disorders. Discomfort may be associated with this test.

Lumbar Puncture (LP). During this test, the lower back is numbed with local anesthesia and a thin needle is placed into the space that contains the spinal fluid (CSF). A neurologist may recommend this test to check for bleeding, hemorrhage, infection, or other disorder of the brain, spinal cord. Discomfort may be associated with this test.

Head MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). An MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to take images of the brain. It is a harmless test performed while a patient is lying in a small chamber for about 30 minutes. It is painless, but may be stressful for individuals with claustrophobia (fear of closed areas).

Neurosonography. This test uses ultra high frequency sound waves to analyze blood flow and blockage in the blood vessels in or leading to the brain. This test is painless.

Sleep Studies. These tests are used to diagnose specific causes of sleep problems. To perform the tests, it is often necessary for a patient to spend the night in a sleep laboratory. Brain wave activity, heart rate, electrical activity of the heart, breathing, and oxygen in the blood are all measured during the sleep test.

Transcranial Doppler (TCD). This test uses sound waves to measure blood flow in the vessels of the brain. A microphone is placed on different parts of the head to view the blood vessels. A neurologist may order this on patients who have had a stroke or are at risk of developing a stroke.

Neurologists can recommend surgical treatment, but they do not perform surgery. When surgical treatment of a medical condition is recommended, the neurologist works closely with a neurosurgeon who performs the procedure.

Professional Organizations of Neurologists

Neurologists may belong to the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). The American Academy of Neurology is an international professional association of neurologists and neuroscience professionals dedicated to providing the best possible care for patients with neurological disorders. Some members of the Academy who have demonstrated special achievement in neuroscience may be called "Academy Fellows". Academy Fellows may be designated by the "FAAN" suffix following their name.

Other professional organizations in which neurologists may be members for ongoing subspecialty education and research efforts include the American Epilepsy Society, American Headache Society, and the Movement Disorder Society.


© 2010 Vivacare. Last updated April 12, 2011.


Raymond Rybicki, MD

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