Neurologists and Neurosurgeons Explained
This article is published with permission of the Hydrocephalus Association. It first appeared in the Hydrocephalus Association Newsletter, Summer 2000. Reprinted and adapted from 'What is a Neurologist?,' published by the American Academy of Neurology Education and Research Foundation, and 'What is Neurosurgery?,' published by Neurosurgery://On-Call
People often ask us what the difference is between a neurologist and a neurosurgeon. With all the medical lingo involved, it can be difficult to get a straight answer. While the following sets of frequently asked questions don't explain all the details, they do provide a general understanding of neurology and neurosurgery.
What is a Neurologist?
A neurologist is a medical doctor with specialized training in diagnosing, treating and managing disorders of the brain and nervous system. Pediatric neurologists are doctors with specialized training in children's neurological disorders. A neurologist's educational background and medical training includes an undergraduate degree, four years of medical school, a one-year internship and three years of specialized training. Many neurologists also have additional training in one area of neurology such as stroke, epilepsy or movement disorders.
What is the role of a Neurologist?
Neurologists are principal care providers or consultants to other physicians. When a patient has a neurological disorder that requires frequent care, a neurologist is often the principal care provider. Patients with disorders such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease or multiple sclerosis may use a neurologist as their principal care physician In a consulting role, a neurologist will diagnose and treat a neurological disorder and then advise the primary care physician managing the patient's overall health. For example, a neurologist would act in a consulting role for conditions such as stroke, concussion or headache. Neurologists can recommend surgical treatment, but do not perform surgery. When treatment includes surgery, neurologists will monitor surgically treated patients and supervise their continuing treatment. Neurosurgeons are medical doctors who specialize in performing surgical treatments of the brain or nervous system.
What does a Neurologist treat?
Neurologists treat disorders of the nervous system, brain, spinal cord, nerves, muscles and pain. Common neurological disorders include: stroke, Alzheimer's disease, headache, epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, sleep disorders, multiple sclerosis, pain, tremor, brain and spinal cord injuries, brain tumors, peripheral nervous disorders and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
How are neurological disorders treated?
Many disorders can be treated. Treatment or symptomatic relief is different for each condition. To find treatment options, neurologists will perform and interpret tests of the brain or nervous system. Treatment can help patients with neurological disorders maintain the best possible quality of life.
What is a neurological examination?
During a neurological examination, the neurologist reviews the patient's health history with special attention to the current condition. The patient then takes a neurological exam. Typically, the exam tests vision, strength, coordination, reflexes and sensation. This information helps the neurologist determine if the problem is in the nervous system. Further tests may be needed to confirm a diagnosis or find a specific treatment.
Why do patients need a neurological examination?
An examination is used when a family doctor seeks a specialized opinion about a patient whose symptoms may involve the brain or nervous system. The examination may also be performed when a patient wants a second opinion from a neurologist. The neurologist's expertise in disorders of the brain and nervous system can give patients effective diagnosis and treatment for neurological disorders.
What is neurosurgery?
Neurological surgery is the medical specialty concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of patients with injury to or diseases of, the brain, spine or peripheral nerves. A neurological surgeon (neurosurgeon) may provide either surgical or non-surgical care depending on the nature of the injury or illness.
What kinds of illnesses do neurological surgeons treat?
Neurosurgeons are more than just brain surgeons. These medical specialists are trained to help patients with head and spine trauma; cerebrovascular disorders, such as aneurysms of the brain and clogged arteries in the neck that can lead to strokes; chronic low back pain; birth defects; brain and spinal tumors; and abnormalities of the peripheral (face, arms, legs, hands and feet) nerves.
How are neurosurgeons trained?
After four years of medical school and an internship program, the doctor enters a neurosurgical residency program of five to seven years. While in the program, neurosurgical residents are trained in all aspects of neurosurgery, including cerebrovascular, pediatrics, spine, trauma and tumor. The resident program is long and difficult, due to the extreme complexity of the nervous system and the advanced techniques used in neurosurgical operations. Some neurosurgeons opt to do an additional fellowship in a particular area of study following their residency. Following residency training and several years in practice, the neurological surgeon may take the American Board of Neurological Surgery examination - a thorough assessment of the neurosurgeon's skill, judgment and depth of knowledge. The successful completion of this examination will result in board certification. While the neurological surgeon has a comprehensive knowledge after medical school and residency training, there are continual changes in this specialty that require ongoing study throughout the neurological surgeon's professional career. Monthly scientific journals, annual meetings, specialized symposia and other educational opportunities help the neurosurgeon keep pace with rapid changes and developments in neurosurgery.
What is the role of a neurosurgeon?
Neurosurgeons provide the operative and non-operative management (i.e.: prevention, diagnosis, evaluation, treatment, critical care and rehabilitation) or neurological disorders. Because neurosurgeons have extensive training in the diagnosis of all neurological diseases, they are often called upon by emergency room doctors, neurologists, internists, family practitioners and osteopaths for consultations.