What is Neurology, and What Does a Neurologist Do?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), neurological disorders affect up to one billion people worldwide. More specifically, nearly 50 million people suffer from epilepsy and 24 million suffer from some form of dementia. Neurological disorders affect people from all ages, races, genders, and income levels, and over 6 million people die each year from neurological complications.
For patients with neurological conditions, access to quality care can be challenging, and the need for qualified doctors to treat these disorders is growing. To explore this evolving field and learn what is neurology, read on to discover more about this in-demand career path.
What is neurology?
Neurology is the field of medicine that manages conditions or problems within the nervous system, which includes the neurons, blood vessels, muscles, brain, and spinal cord. The doctors who research, diagnose, and treat these conditions are referred to as neurologists.
Since the brain controls nearly every function within the body, it is a primary focal point within the field of neurology. Doctors who work in neurology aim to treat and cure neurological diseases, but they are also concerned with improving the quality of life for patients with impaired brain function, either as a result of an injury or as a side effect of a neurological condition.
What does a neurologist do?
Like many other physicians, neurologists are primarily focused on diagnosing and treating diseases. For neurologists, these diseases are limited to those that affect the nervous system. Neurologists may work directly with patients in a clinical capacity, perform studies on diseases in a research capacity, or manage neurology departments and teams in an administrative capacity.
When working with patients, neurologists will visit with patients, order tests, perform skilled procedures, consult with other physicians, and document paperwork. The work is varied and complex, but it is also dynamic and rewarding.
How do you become a neurologist?
In college undergraduate work, a student can begin the path to certified neurologist by completing a pre-med program, though this is not a requirement for a career in neurology. Aspiring neurologists will need to be accepted into medical school and complete an accredited medical school preparatory program. Students should also begin making connections with teachers and others experienced in the field early in their academic programs as this can help during the competitive residency matching process. Exploring the different neurology career pathways early can also help to identify specialties of interest and outline a pathway to achieving targeted career goals.
Education and Training
To become a neurologist, a student must complete 4 years of undergraduate work followed by 4 years of medical school. After graduating medical school, students will typically complete a 1-year internship followed by 3 years in a neurology residency program. Many neurologists will also choose to complete a fellowship in their chosen subspecialty area, and fellowships typically last 1-2 years.
Once a medical student specializes in neurology, they can also choose one of several official subspecialties recognized by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME).
• Brain Injury Medicine – Neurologists who specialize in brain injury medicine support patients who are living with traumatic brain injuries. Care can include medical, physical, psychosocial, and vocational needs.
• Clinical Neurophysiology – Using specific computer, electrical, and magnetic imaging tools, neurologists in this specialty diagnose and treat specific neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or ALS.
• Endovascular Surgical Neuroradiology – In this subspecialty, tools such as x-ray fluoroscopy and angiography are used as interventional treatments to diagnose and treat a variety of neurovascular diseases.
• Epilepsy – These neurological specialists focus on treating adults and children with seizures and seizure disorders.
• Neurodevelopmental Disabilities – This pediatric subspecialty trains doctors to treat and diagnose cognitive developmental disorders in children, including autism, learning disabilities, and emotional/behavioral disorders.
• Neuromuscular Medicine – These neurological specialists diagnose and treat nerve, muscle, and joint pain and diseases that affect the nerves, muscles, and joints.
• Pain Medicine – These specialists work with patients who suffer from chronic or acute pain as a result of neurological diseases.
• Sleep Medicine – Since the brain controls sleep functions, some neurologists choose to subspecialize in sleep medicine, or the study of disorders that affect sleep cycles.
• Vascular Neurology – Vascular specialists care for patients with conditions affecting the blood vessels in the brain and spinal cord, such as strokes or aneurysms.
What’s it like to become a neurologist?
To be successful in this field, neurologists should be patient, caring, dedicated, disciplined, and adaptable. Since many of the diseases they treat do not have definitive procedures for diagnosis and treatment, working with patients can be a long and arduous process. Fortunately, this same obscurity can open the door for amazing breakthroughs and advancements in this field.
Diseases and Conditions Treated
Neurologists can diagnose and treat a variety of diseases and disorders of the nervous system. Some conditions can be diagnosed with concrete biological or genetic testing, while other conditions must be diagnosed through a combination of process of elimination and symptom evaluation. Some of the most common conditions treated by neurologists include:
• Alzheimer’s disease
• Myasthenia gravis
• Parkinson’s disease
• Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
• Cerebral Palsy
• Tumors or injuries of the brain and spinal cord
• Multiple Sclerosis
• Muscular Dystrophy
Tests and Procedures
In order to aid in the diagnosis of neurological diseases, a neurologist is trained to perform several types of tests and procedures that are specific to the field of neurology. Some diseases can be diagnosed through tests performed on blood or urine samples, but when those don’t show the entire picture of a patient’s health, the neurologist must rely on more advanced procedures for diagnosis.
Some of the most common procedures a neurologist may perform include:
• Lumbar Puncture – Also known as a spinal tap, neurologists use this procedure to diagnose conditions that can be detected from the spinal fluid. During the procedure, a neurologist inserts a needle between two of the lower vertebrae to draw a sample of the fluid in the spinal column. This test can detect conditions such as meningitis, multiple sclerosis, or brain cancer.
• Electroencephalogram (EEG) – During an EEG, electrodes are attached along the scalp to monitor brain wave function. This procedure is relatively painless and is used to diagnose seizure disorders, migraine headaches, and sleeping issues.
• Electromyography (EMG) – In this test, neurologists attach electrodes to the skin or insert very fine needles directly into the muscle to monitor muscular function. This test is used to reveal nerve damage or muscle dysfunction.
• Angiography – A combination of contrast dye and x-ray imaging are used in this procedure to identify blocked or malformed arteries or veins within the nervous system.
• Sleep study – Neurological sleep specialists can use a sleep study to evaluate disorders such as sleep apnea. During the study, an EEG monitors brain function and sleep cycles, while other sensors detect eye movement, breathing rates, snoring, and other body movements.
Once a neurologist has completed medical training and earned a certification, he or she can begin to practice independently. Salary expectations in neurology can vary widely based on industry, type of practice, chosen subspecialization, years of experience, and geographic location.
According to the 2019 Medscape Neurologist Compensation Report, the average neurologist earned $267,000 annually, which is slightly higher than the $243,000 earned on average for general internal medicine doctors. The job market for neurologists is projected to continue to grow by 11.4% through 2026 and Career Explorer rates neurologists with an A- employability rating, so employment outlook is strong in this field for the foreseeable future.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is as neurological disorder?
Neurological disorders include any disease or condition that affects any part of the central or peripheral nervous system. Since these disorders commonly affect the brain, spinal cord, and muscular system, they often include symptoms that affect coordination, cognition, sensory function, and strength. Common examples of neurological disorders are Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, brain injuries, seizures, and strokes.
What is Romberg’s test
Neurologists use Romberg’s test, also known as the Romberg maneuver, to evaluate a patient’s proprioception, or sense of positioning. During the test, a patient is asked to stand with his or her feet together and hands by the sides. Then, the neurologist asks the patient to close his or her eyes for one minute. If the neurologist observes signs of swaying or loss of balance during that minute, it is considered a positive Romberg’s test, which indicates issues with proprioception.
How much does a neurologist make?
In 2019, neurologists made on average $267,000 per year. Neurologists who work in larger cities or other high-need areas will tend to earn more, and those who choose surgical subspecialties will also command higher salaries.
What role has neurology played in the COVID-19 pandemic?
Neurological researchers have already identified brain impairment as a recurring symptom in over half of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. These symptoms can manifest as a loss of taste or smell, dizziness, headaches, weakness, difficulty concentrating, and even seizures or strokes. Neurologists have classified these symptoms into three distinct stages that identify the extent of damage to the nervous system.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is still fairly new, this initial research can help neurologists and other physicians continue to diagnose and treat patients effectively and work to prevent the disease from progressing to more damaging stages. This research has also shown that neurological symptoms, such as loss of taste or smell, tend to appear in Coronavirus patients before other symptoms, such as fever or cough. These research efforts can help diagnose patients sooner, which also aids in long-term treatment and rehabilitation.