What is a Neurosurgeon?

A neurosurgeon is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of disorders of the central and peripheral nervous system. This includes congenital anomalies, trauma, tumours, vascular disorders, infections of the brain or spine, stroke, or degenerative diseases of the spine. Neurosurgeons undertake some of the most daunting, risky, and critical operations imaginable on our brains. This career is physically and intellectually demanding and requires excellent hand dexterity and hand-eye coordination.

What does a Neurosurgeon do?

A neurosurgeon is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of disorders of the central and peripheral nervous system.

The nervous system is a complex network of thread-like nerves and cells that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord to various parts of the body including the sensory organs, arms, hands, legs, and feet.

Neurosurgery (or neurological surgery) is the medical specialty that concentrates on the diagnosis and treatment of conditions, illnesses and injuries involving the nervous system and its support structures. This includes conditions involving the brain, the spinal cord, the actual nerves, the skull, the bones of the spine, spinal disks, as well as the blood vessels, ligaments and the protective coverings that offer support to the nervous tissues.

Neurosurgeons, neurologists, and other medical professionals work together to provide comprehensive inpatient care for patients with complex neurological disorders. Neurologists often work closely with neurosurgeons, but do not perform surgery.

Intervention by a neurosurgeon can be surgical but is most often non-surgical and is determined by the condition or injury as well as the general health of the person. Such problems may be the result of abnormal development from birth (congenital), from aging or “wear and tear” (degenerative), traumatic from a definite injury, infectious, neoplastic from a tumour or it may be related to other medical conditions or disease.

Neurosurgeons treat issues such as:

  • Tumours involving the brain, spinal cord, nerves, skull or the spine. These may be a primary growth from the local tissues themselves or a metastatic spread from a cancer in another part of the body.
  • Spinal problems resulting in neck or back pain, the pinching of nerves with resultant pain, numbness or weakness in the arms or legs. These conditions can result from ruptured or bulging disks, excessive overgrowth of arthritic bone, slippage of the vertebra, infections or fractures.
  • Peripheral nerve injuries or compression resulting in pain, numbness, weakness and wasting of the muscles in the face, arm, hand or leg. Conditions such as Carpal Tunnel syndrome are common when the nerve crossing the wrist is compressed or entrapped.
  • Neurovascular disorders such as strokes, brain hemorrhages, aneurysms, vascular malformations, traumatic or non-traumatic blood clots affecting the brain or spinal cord and carotid artery disease.
  • Brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, hydrocephalus or malformations involving the brain from birth.
  • Infections involving the brain and spinal cord, the fluid surrounding these structures or the spinal vertebra and disks.
  • Traumatic injuries to the brain, spinal cord, bones of the spine, nerves and skull.

Are you suited to be a neurosurgeon?

Neurosurgeons have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also realistic, meaning they’re independent, stable, persistent, genuine, practical, and thrifty.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if neurosurgeon is one of your top career matches.

Take the free test now Learn more

What is the workplace of a Neurosurgeon like?

Neurosurgeons often perform multiple procedures in a single day, ranging from simple outpatient treatments to complex brain surgeries. The day of a neurosurgeon starts early, frequently between 5:30 and 7 am. Few neurosurgeons work less than 50-60 hours a week (80+ is not at all unusual). Because of the intense and demanding nature of the work, many neurosurgeons describe this career as a calling rather than just a way to make a living.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I become a Neurosurgeon?

A neurosurgeon’s medical diagnostic and surgical skills are, naturally, at the core of his or her work. However, in addition to being qualified to diagnose conditions and perform difficult procedures, the most successful brain surgeons understand these truths about their profession:

Neurosurgery is more art than science. Because the stakes are higher in neurosurgery than in some other fields, there is less likely to be a clinical trial establishing superiority of some treatments over others. This means that the practice of neurosurgery involves more educated guesswork than expected, which can lead to variability in practice. Every surgeon ends up doing what they think is best for the patient, but there isn’t always one ‘right answer.’

If you’re working with brain trauma, be prepared to handle life-or-death decisions every day. ‘Are they going to live? Are they going to really live? Will they be able to speak and interact and function the way they could before? Will they drive? Will they work?’ These are the questions asked by the families of patients, as they live the most harrowing experience of their lives. For neurosurgeons, this is just the daily routine. Nearly every patient is a high-stakes case, which makes this work incredibly important, but also nerve-wracking.

Delivering bad news never gets earlier. In a microsecond, things can change for the worse. Telling people that their loved one won’t be the same or won’t make it is very difficult and draining. The positive outcomes, however, outweigh the negative ones, by about ten to one.

When someone else’s brain is in your hands, you have to take exceptionally good care of yourself. Not being vigilant about your own health could affect your patient’s health. As simple as these things are, going to bed early the night before surgery, eating a hearty breakfast, and drinking plenty of water can definitely contribute to successful surgical outcomes.

A scientific study can be interpreted to say anything you want it to say. For example, the media recently quoted a published study which concluded that thirty percent of men who played contact sports would develop a form of dementia in adulthood. Reports did not say that subjects in the study were asymptomatic, meaning it was not clear that they had dementia at all. Neurosurgeons must carefully read data from other people’s research and draw their own conclusions to inform their practice.

Often, you’ll have to make a choice between being a surgeon and doing research. It is becoming less common for hospitals to allow their neurosurgeons to conduct research, since it is more economical for a hospital to have them operating on a full-time basis.

Try different things before you commit to a specialty. It is very common for neurosurgeons to choose a subspecialty during residency. When doing so, be certain to consider all aspects of potential specialties. For instance, the emotional impact of a potential negative outcome with a child patient may be enough for some neurosurgeons to avoid specializing in pediatric neurosurgery.

Surgery is all about teamwork. People tend to think of operating rooms as very austere, isolated places; but you are always working and communicating with a team, and everyone plays an important role. This typically includes neurosurgery residents, a scrub nurse, and an anesthesiologist. If one person makes a mistake, another person needs to catch it. Something as trivial as failing to check a preoperative laboratory value can have fatal consequences. The stronger your team, the easier it is to avoid that situation.

Each day at work feels like solving a complicated, beautiful puzzle. The work of neurosurgery is extremely challenging and those who do it experience a high level of job satisfaction. The experience of seeing enormous gratitude in people’s eyes when you tell them that an operation went well is not something that can be replicated in a typical nine-to-five job.

If you are motivated by the information presented above, consider, as well, the soft skills and qualities that operating on the most vulnerable organ in the body requires:

Critical thinking Neurosurgery has only been practised since the early 1900s, making it one of the newest surgeries in modern medicine. As the discipline evolves, brain surgeons have to make time-sensitive decisions on a case-by-case basis. Especially in unconventional cases, they rely on their problem-solving skills to figure out new ways to diagnose and treat neurological diseases.

Motor skills Neurosurgeons work with the body’s nerves and spinal column; one wrong move could cause paralysis or permanent brain damage. They rely on acute hand-eye coordination and a steady hand. They work with advanced instruments and must be able to work in small spaces using technical maneuvers.

Physical & mental stamina The U.S. has less than four thousand neurosurgeons; so, they are overworked. Physical stamina and mental focus are essential for these doctors, who often perform lengthy surgeries, some lasting more than twelve hours. Hours are also irregular; for example, a surgeon may have to wake up in the middle of the night to perform an emergency surgery.

Technology savvy Neurosurgery is one of the most technologically involved surgical specialties. New discoveries are made every year, and many of them incorporate new operating room technologies and high-tech surgical tools, such as medical drills and robotic arms.

Advanced reading comprehension Interpreting graphs and charts are a major part of neuroscience. Doctors order brain scans to find evidence of tissue scarring, clots, and tumors. They must accurately interpret X-rays and images to diagnose neural conditions and determine treatment options.

To work in neurosurgery requires a genuine love of humanity, combined with the capacity to drill a hole in someone’s head without fear of hurting them. The task can be life altering. It is both profoundly technical and profoundly human.

Are Neurosurgeons happy?

No specific statistics exist that speak to how happy most neurosurgeons are. A very high happiness quotient in the field would not be surprising, in view of the vital work that these surgeons do and the personal reward they reap from it. On the other hand, the demands of the job – from the career’s lengthy and competitive educational track to the demands it places on time and energy – could support a low measurement on the happiness scale.

How long does it take to become a Neurosurgeon?

The process of becoming a neurosurgeon can last fifteen years or longer:

Pre-med Bachelor’s degree – four years Medical school – four years Internship – one year Residency – six to seven years

What are Neurosurgeons like?

The capacity of neurosurgeons to manage high pressure and stress cannot be over-emphasized. They are typically individuals who welcome intense intellectual challenge and take great satisfaction and intrinsic rewards from performing advanced and life-saving surgeries.

Steps to becoming a Neurosurgeon

The decision to become a neurosurgeon is a decision to commit to a lengthy and rigorous educational track, multiple levels of examinations and licensing, a demanding internship, an arduous residency, and career-long learning and dedication.

Neurosurgeons are also known as:
Brain Surgeon