What is a Neurologist?
A neurologist is a medical doctor who specializes in treating diseases that affect the human nervous system. It is a very prestigious and difficult medical specialty due to the complexity of the nervous system, which consists of the brain, the spinal cord and the peripheral nerves. Since the brain is the central command of the human body, the diseases affecting it have a significant negative impact on health and normal functioning. A neurologist is a doctor who is highly trained in recognizing the early symptoms of nervous dysfunction, establishing its cause, the exact location of the problem and its potential treatment.
Neurologists are usually people who possess a detail-oriented way of reasoning and are very skilled at identifying the minor signs of neurological disorders. Unlike neurosurgeons, neurologists do not perform surgeries, but attempt to treat neurologic disease through medication, rehabilitation and physical therapy. However, neurosurgeons always consult neurologists before making any major surgical intervention on the brain, because neurologists usually have a deep understanding regarding the relationship between anatomical structure and brain function, which is very important for a full recovery.
What does a Neurologist do?
Neurologists are highly intelligent people who dedicate their lives to treating disorders of the nervous system. This medical profession requires a lot of patience, an in-depth understanding of anatomy and physiology, but also knowledge of other body systems such as the cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine and digestive systems. This is because any disease affecting these body systems may directly impact brain function and cause neurological disease.
For example, untreated high blood pressure may cause a stroke, which is a sudden loss of blood supply to a region of the brain resulting in the death of brain cells. Although initially the disease presents itself as a cardiac problem, it ends up becoming a significant neurological problem that needs to be addressed by neurologists.
Neurologists also need to have a good knowledge of infectious diseases, bacteria and antibiotics since many infections can initially affect the brain or can extend towards the brain in their evolution. Meningitis is a good example of a neurological disease that has an infectious cause. Although initially the patient may be referred to an infectious disease specialist, a neurologist may take over the case if there is a potential for severe damage to nervous functioning as a consequence of the disease.
Neurologists also treat peripheral nerve diseases, which may result in loss of muscle function, loss of tactile perception, loss of sensitivity to pain or temperature and even speech or eyesight impairment. Another major disease that is addressed by neurologists is epilepsy, and it affects almost one percent of the general population at some point during their lives.
A neurology specialist will start the investigation of a particular patient by performing a neurological exam, which involves the assessment of basic brain function, and an individual evaluation of each peripheral nerve group. This is a method of gaining a basic understanding about the location of the problem within the nervous system. However, modern day neurologists don't have to rely solely on their talent of identifying the cause and the location of the affected region based on clinical examination only. Advanced imaging medical tools such as Computer Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) can provide a more precise diagnosis and make treatment more effective and safe.
Neurologists will encounter people who suffer from seizures, have lost their ability to move their limbs or have severe speech impairment. Potential experts in neurology need to have the ability to cope with such stress and be emotionally stable. Moreover, they need to be good at solving problems and observing small details that will help prevent further worsening of minor health conditions.
For example, a small change in the way that a patient feels in one of his or her limbs may be the first sign of a major regional brain problem such as cancer or blood flow obstruction. By recognizing such small symptoms and details, neurologists are frequently able to treat the disease in its incipient stages and save the patient's life.
What is the workplace of a Neurologist like?
Neurologists work mostly in hospitals or other multi-specialty clinical settings. Depending on the country, a neurologist may have a private medical office, but this is less frequently encountered due to the nature of the work. Neurologists usually don't work in primary care units or in emergency healthcare settings, but they may be called in certain situations to assess the status of a patient in such units.
What is the difference between a neurologist and a neuroscientist?
The most concise distinction between neurologists and neuroscientists is this: Neurologists are physicians. Neuroscientists are researchers.
As practising physicians, neurologists are specialists who diagnose and treat conditions and diseases of the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous systems. Neuroscientists study the mechanics of the central nervous system. They conduct research on patients and laboratory animals to learn about its structure, function, genetics, and physiology. Their objectives are to identify the underlying cause of neurological disorders and to understand how their findings can help neurologists treat diseases of the nervous system.
A neurologist will have a medical degree, whereas a neuroscientist will have a Ph.D.
Another significant distinction between neurology and neuroscience is the level of specialization that typically occurs in each discipline. Neurologists often go on to specialize in a particular subfield or even in a specific disease or disorder; such as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, amyotropic lateral sclerosis, migraine, epilepsy or movement disorders, brain and spinal cord injury, peripheral nerve disease, brain tumors, cancer, sleep disorders, chronic pain, or personality disorders. Such targeted specialization is not the norm in neuroscience. However, some neuroscientists may focus their research on a particular disease or on a particular area such as neuro-immunology (the study of the interaction between the nervous system and the immune system).
What types of disorders does a neurologist treat?
Disorders of the nervous system treated by neurologists include:
Epilepsy: A neurological disorder associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain, causing recurrent, unprovoked seizures and loss of consciousness
Alzheimer’s disease (and other dementias): Progressive mental deterioration that is caused by generalized degeneration of the brain
Stroke (and other cerebrovascular diseases): A stroke occurs when a blood vessel is prevented from delivering oxygen and nutrients to the brain, due to a blood clot or rupture
Migraine (and other headache disorders): A severe, reoccurring headache often paired with nausea and disturbed vision
Multiple Sclerosis: A chronic disease involving damage to nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord characterized by numbness, speech and muscular impairment, blurred vision, and severe fatigue
Parkinson’s disease: A progressive disease marked by tremor, muscular rigidity, and slow, imprecise movement; Parkinson’s is associated with degeneration of the basal ganglia of the brain, and dopamine deficiency
Brain tumor: A mass of abnormal cells in the brain, leading to impaired cognitive function
Brain trauma / Spinal cord trauma (and other injuries of the nervous system): Injury to the brain from an outside force, sometimes leading to an altered state of consciousness, and permanent or temporary impairment of cognitive, physical, or psychosocial functions
Tourette Syndrome (and other disorders of function): A neurological disorder, coupled with involuntary tics and vocalizations, as well as the compulsive exclamation of obscenities
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease): A progressive deterioration of the motor neurons of the central nervous system, leading to muscular atrophy and paralysis
Neurologists also treat diseases that attack the nervous system, such as:
- Infections (bacterial, viral, fungal)
- Cancers (malignant, benign)
Patients with the following symptoms typically need to see a neurologist:
- Coordination / movement problems
- Muscle pain / weakness
- A change in sensation / numbness or tingling
- Confusion or memory problems
- Chronic headaches
- Sleep problems
- Speech or language difficulties
Neurologists may also treat people who are having problems with their sense of touch, vision, or smell, as sensory dysfunction is sometimes caused by disorders of the nervous system.
It is important to note that neurologists can recommend surgical treatment, but do not perform surgery. Neurosurgeons specialize in performing surgical treatment of disorders which affect any portion of the nervous system including the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves, and cerebrovascular system.
What are the employment opportunities for neurologists?
Employment opportunities for neurologists are expected to increase by 18% from 2012 to 2022, adding 123,300 jobs over that period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
What is some good advice for neurology students?
It would be wise to find a mentor who can give advice and guide you on your path to becoming a neurologist. A good mentor can be one of the neurology faculty members at your university. It's important to connect with your mentor on a personal level, and find someone who has an interest in you. You may be able to get a glimpse of what it's like to be in this career by shadowing a neurologist. Sometimes neurology residents have 'bedside teaching conferences,’ and this experience can be a great way to solidify what you've learned. If at all possible, consider doing research by connecting with researchers or research programs within your university. There are also research scholarships available for medical students that you may be able to take advantage of.
The following are highlights of advice for medical students studying neurology, compiled by the American Academy of Neurology.
Create a solid foundation in neuroanatomy
Knowing the neural and motor pathways and functions of systems will make learning neurological disorders and diseases much easier. Keep in mind that neurology is a logical discipline that emphasizes first localizing the lesion based on the clinical history and physical exam, and then determining the most likely diagnosis.
Practice makes perfect
Quiz yourself on pathways until it becomes second nature. Group study is often helpful and web-based resources, such as Utah Med have great online quizzes.
Learn the Neurologic Exam
Even for physicians, the neurologic exam can be intimidating. It is important to conduct its components in a specific order: Mental Status, Cranial Nerves, Motor Sensory, Reflexes, Coordination and Gait. Practising neurologists invariably advise students to develop a logical and systematic approach that they can follow almost without thinking.
Read clinical vignettes
Seeing or hearing about patients and their cases often makes it easier to remember the pathology, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases.
Read these books to prepare for board exams
- Netter’s Atlas of Human Neuroscience (3rd edition), David L. Felten, M. Kerry O’Banion, Mary Summo Maida
- Neuroanatomy, An Atlas of Structures, Sections, and Systems, Duane E. Haines
- High-Yield Neuroanatomy (5th edition), Douglas J. Gould, Jennifer K. Brueckner-Collins
What is it like being a neurologist?
Neurologists have a wide availability of treatments, high-tech equipment, and diagnostic capabilities that they can offer their patients, many that weren't available ten to twenty years ago. There is also a lot of research in the field of neurology which can make every day a learning experience. Going into the practice of neurology can be fulfilling and meaningful. It can also be stressful and demanding, as long hours are spent with patients that have life-threatening diseases and chronic illnesses.
Neurologists are also known as:
General Neurologist Adult Neurologist Pediatric Neurologist Adult and Pediatric Neurologist Vascular Neurologist Neurodevelopmental and Neuromuscular Neurologist