Neurological disorder

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at July 23, 2016
StartDiseasesNeurological disorder

Neurological disorders affect the peripheral nervous system and the central nervous system which consists of the brain and the spinal cord.


Definition & Facts

Over 600 neurological disorders are known in the medical field today according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Over 30 of them are types of muscular dystrophy. Many factors cause these issues in the nervous system, ranging from genetic disorders like muscular dystrophy to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease to cancer and infections like meningitis.

There are some neurological disorders that may begin in another body system altogether, such as an autoimmune disease or brain injury caused by cardiovascular disease. Still other neurological problems seem to have no cause whatsoever and are referred to as idiopathic disorders. Pinning down a specific diagnosis for many neurological disorders may be difficult; for example, many cases of peripheral neuropathy are idiopathic. The exact causes of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis are largely unknown as well.

Symptoms & Complaints

Though the diseases themselves differ greatly in their diagnoses there are a number of symptoms and complaints that are similar across the spectrum of neurological disorders. A person suffering from either an acute or chronic neurological disorder may demonstrate muscle weakness, paralysis, odd or painful sensations in the feet and hands as well as hypersensitivity of the skin.

Other people develop issues with resting or sleeping such as sleeping too much (hypersomnia) or insomnia. Tremors and spasms of the muscles may happen alone or in conjunction with other symptoms, such as blacking out or falling into a coma.

Migraines are acute neurological disorders that last from between two and 72 hours. Sometimes they occur with auditory or visual hallucinations. Symptoms of Huntington's disease include uncontrolled movements of the limbs, upper body and face. Children and adults with one of the diseases collectively known as muscular dystrophy often have drooping eyelids, difficulty walking, and breathing problems.


Of the hundreds of known neurological disorders, no two are caused by exactly the same issue. For example, two genetically linked diseases are Huntington's and muscular dystrophy. They both often take away a person's ability to walk in the later stages of the disease. However, Huntington's disease is caused specifically by genetic mutations in the HTT gene (Huntingtin) while muscular dystrophy is most often caused by changes in the dystrophin gene.

Degeneration of muscle-controlling nerve cells (neurodegeneration) are the direct cause of ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. Other disorders may occur as a result of sudden trauma or injury. Lifestyle issues, especially illicit drug use or malnutrition can cause the onset of neurological problems.

Another cause of neurological problems is Zika fever caused by the Zika virus, though only one in five people who contract it show any symptoms. Pregnant women are said to be especially vulnerable to the damaging effects of the virus because it possibly affects cell growth of the fetus, leading to microcephaly.

Diagnosis & Tests

Disorders of the peripheral nervous system and central nervous systems may be difficult to diagnose. The majority of them do not have definite causes or markers or even specific tests for them. Successfully diagnosing these disorders is most often through a combination of physical examinations and mental evaluations.

There are some procedures available that allow doctors to further their understanding of neurological symptoms presented to them by their patients. For example, a doctor may use CT scans, EEG's, and PET scans as well as spinal taps (lumbar punctures) in an effort to diagnose a patient and lay out a treatment plan for their patient's well-being. 

Treatments & Therapy

Modern medicine allows hope for people suffering with neurological disorders where once there may have been none. Treatments for neurological problems vary as much as the symptoms and the disorders themselves. They may include either one or more types of therapy such as medications for restoration of function or pain management, device-based therapies, surgery, physical therapy and rehabilitation.

Examples are as simple as treating Parkinson's disease with medications like levodopa and carbidopa or treating epilepsy with anticonvulsants. These treatments often work more quickly than others to help a patient get back to their lives. Migraines may be treated with medication prior to or just after their onset.

Only recently has an experimental drug been developed that seems to promise treatment of the symptoms of Huntington's disease, particularly the involuntary and sudden muscle movements. Brain mapping is a relatively new three dimensional technique that allows surgeons to precisely target and remove brain tumors that may be the cause of various neurological disorders.

Mental disorders that have a basis in neurological abnormalities such as certain types of mood disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may best be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Most neurological disorders are not preventable, especially those that are genetically based, though many are manageable given the advances of modern medicine. Some disorders like stroke may be prevented by lifestyle changes. Keeping hypertension under control and cholesterol within acceptable limits cuts down on the chance of having a stroke, especially in older people and people with diabetes.

Maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding or using sparingly alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs may lower the chance of having brain damage that can arise from their abuse. Pregnant women are advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid traveling to any regions that are Zika virus prone and also to avoid unprotected sex with any males who live in or have visited those same areas.

Anyone who has been diagnosed with a neurological disorder is urged to maintain as positive an outlook as possible and follow their doctor's instructions to the letter. Though some neurological disorders remain fatal, advancements in medical research mean that people with many of these disabling diseases are no longer under a death warrant. With some knowledge of the causes, symptoms and treatments of this group of maladies and a basic understanding of both the central and peripheral nervous systems, one can make intelligent decisions and be active in their own health care plan.