Overview of Nervous System Disorders

What is the nervous system?

The nervous system is a complex, sophisticated system that regulates and coordinates body activities. It is made up of two major divisions, including the following:

  • Central nervous system. This consists of the brain and spinal cord.

  • Peripheral nervous system. This consists of all other neural elements, including the peripheral nerves and the autonomic nerves.

Illustration of the nervous system

In addition to the brain and spinal cord, principal organs of the nervous system include the following:

  • Eyes

  • Ears

  • Sensory organs of taste

  • Sensory organs of smell

  • Sensory receptors located in the skin, joints, muscles, and other parts of the body

What are some disorders of the nervous system?

The nervous system is vulnerable to various disorders. It can be damaged by the following:

  • Trauma

  • Infections

  • Degeneration

  • Structural defects

  • Tumors

  • Blood flow disruption

  • Autoimmune disorders

Disorders of the nervous system

Disorders of the nervous system may involve the following:

  • Vascular disorders, such as stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA), subarachnoid hemorrhage, subdural hemorrhage and hematoma, and extradural hemorrhage

  • Infections, such as meningitis, encephalitis, polio, and epidural abscess

  • Structural disorders, such as brain or spinal cord injury, Bell's palsy, cervical spondylosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, brain or spinal cord tumors, peripheral neuropathy, and Guillain-Barré syndrome

  • Functional disorders, such as headache, epilepsy, dizziness, and neuralgia

  • Degeneration, such as Parkinson disease, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Huntington chorea, and Alzheimer disease

Signs and symptoms of nervous system disorders

The following are the most common general signs and symptoms of a nervous system disorder. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Persistent or sudden onset of a headache

  • A headache that changes or is different

  • Loss of feeling or tingling

  • Weakness or loss of muscle strength

  • Loss of sight or double vision

  • Memory loss

  • Impaired mental ability

  • Lack of coordination

  • Muscle rigidity

  • Tremors and seizures

  • Back pain which radiates to the feet, toes, or other parts of the body

  • Muscle wasting and slurred speech

  • New language impairment (expression or comprehension)

The symptoms of a nervous system disorder may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Healthcare providers who treat nervous system disorders

The best way to manage nervous system disorders is with the help of a team of healthcare providers. You may not need all members of the team at any given time. But it's good to know who they are and how they can help. Here is a list of some of the healthcare providers that may be involved in treating nervous system disorders:

  • Neurologist. The medical healthcare providers who diagnose and treat nervous system disorders are called neurologists. Some neurologists treat acute strokes and cerebral aneurysms using endovascular techniques.
  • Neurosurgeon. Surgeons who operate as a treatment team for nervous system disorders are called neurological surgeons or neurosurgeons.
  • Neuroradiologist and interventional radiologist. This is a radiologist who specializes in diagnosing nervous system conditions using imaging and in treating nervous system conditions such as cerebral aneurysms, acute strokes, and vertebral fractures. This provider also does biopsies of certain tumors.
  • Psychologist. Emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, mood swings, and irritability are common in nervous system disorders. Your psychologist can help. Psychologists may do testing to find out how much your disorder is affecting the way you think and feel. Psychologists also do talk therapy (counseling) to help you deal with the emotional effects caused by nervous system disorders.
  • Psychiatrist. Like your psychologist, this team member deals with emotional and behavior symptoms caused by nervous system disorders. In most cases, talk therapy works best for these problems. But if you need medicines to treat symptoms such as depression or anxiety, this doctor can help.
  • Physiatrist. Healthcare providers who work with people in the rehab (rehabilitation) process are called physiatrists.
  • Physical therapist. This is a movement specialist who can help you move and walk well. In physical therapy, you can also work on painful or stiff muscles and joints.
  • Occupational therapist. This provider helps you learn to handle your day-to-day activities. For example, you might have trouble doing tasks you need to do at work or at home. Your occupational therapist will help you find ways to adjust to any changes in your physical abilities.
  • Speech/language pathologist. This provider specializes in communication, including cognitive communication. They also diagnose and treat swallowing problems.

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