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Introduction to the Diagnosis of Brain, Spinal Cord, and Nerve Disorders

By Michael C. Levin, MD, Saskatchewan Multiple Sclerosis Clinical Research Chair and Professor of Neurology and Anatomy-Cell Biology;Adjunct Professor of Neurology, College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan;University of Tennessee Health Science Center

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The nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body (peripheral nerves).

Doctors may suspect a problem with the brain, spinal cord, or nerves based on symptoms. Symptoms resulting from a disorder that affects part or all of the nervous system (a neurologic disorder) are called neurologic symptoms.

Because the nervous system controls so many different body functions, neurologic symptoms can vary greatly. They can include the following:

Neurologic symptoms may be minor (such as a foot that has fallen asleep) or life threatening (such as coma due to stroke).

The characteristics and pattern of symptoms help doctors diagnose the neurologic disorder.

When people have symptoms that suggest a neurologic disorder, doctors ask specific questions about the symptoms and other relevant factors (the medical history). Doctors usually also do a physical examination to evaluate all of the body systems, but they focus on the nervous system (called the neurologic examination).

The neurologic examination helps doctors do the following:

  • Identify the location of the abnormality that is causing the symptoms

  • Determine whether tests are needed and, if needed, which tests should be done

Diagnostic tests may be needed to confirm a diagnosis or exclude other possible disorders.