Neurologists are physician specialists. They diagnose and treat diseases or injuries of the brain, central nervous system, spinal cord, peripheral nerves, muscles and blood vessels. Neurologists also oversee the health care of people with Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, brain tumors, sleep disorders and more than 600 other neurologic diseases, some of which are rare.
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The term “neurology” comes from the Greek words "neuron," or nerve, and "logia," which means "sayings or oracles." A neurologist is a physician who specializes in neurology.
The United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties has certified several neurologic subspecialties. Neurologists who specialize in autonomic disorders diagnose and treat diseases that affect heartbeats, the narrowing and widening of blood vessels and other involuntary actions of the body, including breathing and swallowing. Behavioral neurologists study the links between neuroscience and behavior, and treat patients with memory, attention, language, emotion or behavioral problems.
Neurophysiologists treat problems of the muscles and nerves and have specialized skills in testing tools such as electroencephalography, or EEG, which measures brain waves. Geriatric neurologists diagnose and treat diseases that affect older adults, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson's disease.
A neurologist who specializes in head and facial pain is referred to as a headache specialist. These specialists diagnose and treat headache, migraine and face pain. A neuro-oncologist is trained to diagnose and treat patients with tumors in the brain and nervous system.
A neuroimaging specialist has advanced skills in the use of tools that provide high-resolution images of the brain. These tools include functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, positron emission tomography, or PET, and electroencephalography, among others.
General neurologists receive nine years of medical education; neurology subspecialists receive an additional three to eight years of training. The training includes four years of premedical education in a college or university; four years of medical school resulting in a doctor of medicine, or M.D., degree; and one year of internship in either internal medicine or medicine/surgery. In addition, subspecialists must obtain a minimum of three years of specialty training in an accredited neurology residency program. Neurologists are certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, or ABPN.
It’s a common misperception that neurologists and neurosurgeons are the same. In fact, the specialties are quite different. A neurologist is not a surgeon by training. Neurologists diagnose and treat neurological conditions, but when these conditions must be treated surgically, the patient is referred to a neurosurgeon.
Illnesses that affect the brain and central nervous system can be devastating to patients and their families. A high degree of compassion, as well as a strong interest in finding cures through research, is suggested for those who pursue this field. William Mobley, M.D., a neurologist who co-founded the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, said on the center's website that "Scientists are supposed to be professional skeptics, but there are people in the field ... whose only interest is seeing God's face." He added that "Nothing is off-limits to science and critical thinking. We don't have great tools, but they're good enough to get started."