The nervous system is a complex, highly specialized network. From sight to smell and walking to speaking, our nervous system organizes, explains and connects us to the world around us.
“Our nervous systems are composed of some of the most important parts of our body: the brain, the spinal cord, muscles and the nerves that connect them,” said Christina Chrisman, MD, a neuromuscular neurologist with Banner Brain & Spine. “They are responsible for many important functions in our bodies, such as memory, perception, language, movement, swallowing, breathing and even bowel and bladder function.”
When something goes wrong with a part of the nervous system, however, it can cause a neurological disorder. Neurological disorders affect millions of people each year, yet many people may be unaware they have one.
Understanding symptoms of neurological disorders is important, as it can lead you to an appropriate diagnosis and treatment. Here are six common neurological disorders and ways to identify each one.
Headaches are one of the most common neurological disorders and can affect anyone at any age. While many times a headache shouldn’t be anything too serious to worry about, if your headache comes on suddenly and repeatedly, you should see a doctor, as these could be symptoms of an underlying condition.
“The sudden onset of severe headache as well as headache associated with a fever, light sensitivity and stiff neck are all red flags of something more serious such as intracranial bleeding or meningitis,” Dr. Chrisman said. “If your headaches are happening often and you find yourself taking over-the-counter pain medication frequently, this is also an indication you need medical attention.”
Although headache disorders like tension-type headaches and migraines aren’t life-threatening, dealing with chronic pain can be debilitating. There are many treatment options available today for headache disorders that can help you get back to a more normal life.
2. Epilepsy and seizures
Epilepsy is a common disorder of the central nervous system involving abnormal electrical activity in the brain that makes you more susceptible to having recurrent, unprovoked seizures. “Unprovoked means the seizure cannot be explained by exposure to or withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, as well as not due to other medical issues such as severe electrolyte abnormalities or very high blood sugar,” Dr. Chrisman said.
The tricky part is that if you have one seizure in your life, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have epilepsy. But, if you have two or more, it may be epilepsy. Seizure symptoms can vary depending on where in the brain the seizure is coming from. After experiencing a seizure, it’s important to see your doctor. There are many effective treatments to manage epilepsy that can result in seizure-freedom, usually medication. “In the appropriate patient, treatment may include epilepsy surgery, which involves removing the seizure focus in the brain, and that can be curative,” Dr. Chrisman said.
Strokes, which affect nearly 800,000 Americans each year, “are one of the most crucial neurological disorders to be aware of due to the severity of potential symptoms and resulting disability that can occur,” Dr. Chrisman cautioned.
A stroke is usually due to a lack of blood flow to the brain, oftentimes caused by a clot or blockage in an artery. Many interventions can be done to stop a stroke these days, but time is brain (not money) in this case. The B.E. F.A.S.T. mnemonic is helpful to remember to recognize the signs of a stroke: B: Balance difficulties; E: Eyesight changes; F: Face weakness; A: Arm weakness; S: Speech; and T: Time. These signs and symptoms don’t always mean someone is having a stroke, but it’s very important to call 911 and get help right away, just to be sure.
Identify your risk factors for stroke and ways to improve them by visiting our Stroke Risk Profiler.
4. ALS: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a somewhat rare neuromuscular condition that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Doctors are unsure what exactly causes ALS, but factors that may cause ALS include genetics and environmental factors.
Symptoms include muscle weakness and twitching, tight and stiff muscles, slurred speech, and difficulty breathing and swallowing. Unfortunately, this condition is difficult to diagnose and often requires the evaluation of a neuromuscular neurologist.
“There is usually a delay in diagnosis for this condition of about one year, on average, by the time the patient gets to the neuromuscular specialist and receives the correct diagnosis,” Dr. Chrisman said. “Although there is no cure, there are treatments, and it’s important to start these as early as possible.”
5. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
Memory loss is a common complaint, especially in older adults. A certain degree of memory loss is a normal part of aging. For example, walking into a room and forgetting why may be totally normal.
However, there are signs that may indicate something more serious, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. These symptoms may include getting lost, having difficulty managing finances, difficulties with activities of daily living, leaving the stove on, forgetting the names of close family and friends or problems with language. Behavioral changes along with these memory changes could also raise concerns.
Dementia is a slowly progressive condition and should be evaluated by a neurologist. While there is no cure, there are medications and therapies that can help manage symptoms.
6. Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that primarily affects coordination. Generally, it becomes more common as you age, impacting nearly one million Americans. Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, but many treatment options are available.
Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease usually get worse over time. “You may experience changes in posture, walking and facial expressions early on in the disease, and cognitive and behavioral problems could develop later in the disease,” Dr. Chrisman said. To learn more about symptoms of the disease, read “The 5 Stages of Parkinson’s Disease.”
Seek help immediately
If you’re experiencing sudden and severe neurological symptoms, call 911 or have someone drive you to the nearest emergency room. This can be especially important to rule out or confirm a stroke and for you to be eligible for potentially life-saving treatments.
Seizures are also quite serious, so it’s important to seek prompt medical attention for a new onset of seizures and to be aware of safety restrictions, such as not operating heavy machinery, and precautions for your safety as well as the safety of others.
Otherwise, neurological disorders may be slowly progressive and require a specialist to diagnose and treat. Neurology has many different sub-specialties, including neuromuscular disorders, movement disorders and headache. Seek a consultation with a neurologist who specializes in the particular condition for your case to help ensure you receive the best outcome in the long run. To make an appointment with a neurologist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.