Neurology

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The World Health Organization estimates that approximately one billion people worldwide suffer from brain and nervous system problems, known as neurological illnesses. These range from Alzheimer and Parkinson disease, strokes, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy to migraine, brain injuries and neuro infections.

Brain and nervous system problems affect people in all countries – irrespective of age, sex, education or income. They can impact one's central command system, potentially impairing memory and the ability to perform daily activities. Learning to live with or supporting someone with a neurological condition is challenging. Read more about the symptoms, causes, prevention and treatment of these disorders.

What is the nervous system?

The nervous system is a complex network of nerves and cells that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord to various parts of the body. It organizes, explains, and directs interactions between you and the world around you.

The nervous system includes both the central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS). The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord, and is the processing centre for the nervous system. It receives information from and sends information to the peripheral nervous system.

The peripheral nervous system consists of all of the nerves and nerve cells outside of the brain and spinal cord. Its main function is to relay information to and from your central nervous system, and to control voluntary and involuntary movements.

What does the nervous system control?

The nervous system controls:

  • The ability to think and reason. This allows you to be conscious, have thoughts, memories and to acquire and use language.
  • Sight, hearing, smell and sensations.
  • Voluntary and involuntary functions, such as movement, balance and coordination. The nervous system also regulates the actions of most other body systems, such as blood flow and blood pressure.

What causes brain and nervous system problems?

Brain and nervous system problems affect people of all demographics. There are a number of different conditions, diseases and injuries that can cause nervous system problems. These can impair one’s memory and the ability to perform daily activities. See types for a list of the most common brain and nervous system problems.

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Some serious conditions, diseases, and injuries that can cause nervous system problems include:

  • Blood supply problems such as vascular disorders.
  • Injuries or trauma, particularly injuries to the head and spinal cord.
  • Congenital problems present at birth.
  • Mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, depression or psychosis.
  • Exposure to toxins.
  • Degenerative problems that cause a gradual loss of function. Common examples include Parkinson’s disease, Multiple sclerosis (MS), Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease and Peripheral neuropathies.
  • Infections, which may occur in the brain, such as encephalitis or abscesses, or in the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord, such as meningitis.
  • Overuse of or withdrawal from medicines, illegal drugs or alcohol.
  • A brain tumor.
  • Organ system failure. Examples include respiratory failure, heart failure, liver failure and kidney failure.
  • Other conditions including thyroid dysfunction, diabetes or nutritional deficiencies.
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The symptoms of a nervous system problem may be mild or severe, depending on the cause of the problem and the area of the nervous system involved. Nervous system problems may be degenerative, meaning they can occur slowly and cause a gradual loss of function. On the other hand, symptoms of acute nervous system problems may occur suddenly with life-threatening consequences.

The following are the most common general signs and symptoms of a nervous system disorder. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Numbness or tingling
  • Weakness, loss of muscle strength or inability to move a part or all of one side of the body
  • Sudden loss of sight or double vision
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion or change in level of consciousness or behavior
  • Dizziness, unsteadiness, or the inability to stand or walk
  • Persistent or sudden onset of a headache
  • A headache that feels different to any experienced before
  • Tremors and seizures
  • Severe nausea or vomiting
  • Back pain which, according to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center , may radiate to the feet, toes, or other parts of the body
  • Muscle wasting and slurred speech

The symptoms of a nervous system disorder may resemble other medical conditions or problems, so it is important to always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

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Doctors who treat nervous system problems may have to see you over the course of a number of appointments before they can make a probable diagnosis of the specific condition. This generally involves performing various tests to eliminate other conditions, so that the most likely diagnosis can be made.

Specific treatment for symptoms relating to a nervous system problem depends on the cause of the problem. Keep a diary of your symptoms to review with your doctor at your next appointment.

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Although you aren’t able to definitively prevent nervous system problems, you can take steps to reduce known risk factors for neurological illnesses. Follow these prevention guidelines below:

  • Adopt a balanced, low-fat diet: Ensure that your diet contains lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water and limit your intake of caffeinated drinks.
  • Exercise regularly: Talk to your doctor about an exercise plan that works for you.
  • Avoid smoking and limit alcohol: Do not smoke or use other tobacco products, and limit your alcohol intake.
  • Do not use illegal drugs: Keep away from illegal drugs that can affect functioning long after use.
  • Manage your health conditions: Take care of health conditions that may cause decreased nervous system functioning, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Learn new skills: Increase your attention span and ability to focus by learning new skills.
  • Decrease your use of nonprescription medicines: Overuse of medicines may cause nervous system problems in older adults.
  • Protect yourself from head injuries: Protect your head from injuries by wearing a seat belt and using protective gear during sports.
  • Manage your weight: Maintain a healthy weight through a balanced diet and exercise.
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