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Neurologists and neurosurgeons both specialize in treating conditions related to the brain, spine and nervous system, but these two specialties take different paths to provide care for people with a long list of neurological disorders ranging from multiple sclerosis and epilepsy to brain and spine tumors. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a neurological condition, you may be referred to a neurologist, a neurosurgeon, or both of these for diagnosing and treating the cause of your symptoms.

What Are Neurological Disorders?

There are over 600 neurological disorders – short-term or chronic health conditions that affect the brain, spine and both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Common neurological disorders include multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, as well as memory disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Malformations in the brain, such as arteriovenous malformations, Chiari malformation, and aneurysms are considered neurological conditions, and so are tumors of the brain and spinal cord. Events such as stroke and trauma to the brain or spine and nerve problems like neuropathy and neuralgia are also treated by specialists in neurology.

Neurological disorders can cause a wide range of symptoms, from muscle weakness and numbness in peripheral areas such as hands and feet to problems with coordination, vision, concentration and sensation. Paralysis, seizures, and unexplained pain can also indicate a neurological problem.

Diagnosing and Treating Neurological Disorders

Neurological disorders can be treated with approaches including medication, physical therapy, and surgery. Treating a neurological condition typically begins with a visit to a primary care physician, who may then make a referral to a neurological specialist for diagnosis and treatment. Depending on your circumstances, your care team could include a neurologist, a neurosurgeon, or both.

Diagnosis is the first step in treating a neurological disorder, and a number of tests and diagnostic tools can be used to determine the cause of a person’s symptoms. Because symptoms of a neurological condition can often be caused by a number of different disorders, multiple tests might be needed to correctly diagnose the condition and develop a treatment plan.

Common tests and procedures for diagnosing a neurological problem include lab testing of blood, urine and other fluids, imaging processes such as CT and MRI scans, ultrasounds and angiography, a process in which dye is injected into an artery and tracked in order to detect blockages and other kinds of abnormalities. Both neurosurgeons and neurologists can order these and other tests and procedures in order to diagnose and treat a neurological condition appropriately.

What Does a Neurologist Do?

A neurologist is a physician with additional specialized training in diagnosing, treating and managing neurological disorders. Pediatric neurologists concentrate on neurological conditions that affect children, such as epilepsy. When a patient has neurological symptoms, the first referral a primary care doctor makes is usually to a neurologist, who works with the primary care physician to diagnose a neurological condition and plan a course of treatment.

Depending on the diagnosis, patients can be referred back to their primary care doctor to continue treatment. But neurologists can also manage treatment for a wide range of neurological conditions, especially chronic disorders like Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and ALS. Neurologists can also refer patients to neurosurgeons for consultation and treatment of “structural” problems, such as a tumor or an abnormality of the brain or spine. In some cases, though, neurologists may also be qualified to perform minimally invasive procedures to correct these kinds of problems.

What Does a Neurosurgeon Do?

Neurosurgeons are medical specialists with additional specialized training in neurology, including seven years of a residency in neurosurgery. Neurosurgeons specialize in performing surgical procedures on the brain and spine to correct issues that cause neurological symptoms. They can also partner with other members of the healthcare team to provide non-surgical care for a variety of neurological disorders affecting the brain, spine and peripheral nervous system, such as chronic pain and neuropathy caused by diseases such as diabetes. Neurosurgeons may also work in hospital emergency rooms, where they treat traumatic events like strokes and injuries to the brain and spine.

Neurosurgeons use a range of surgical techniques, including traditional “open” surgeries that involve an incision to access the area that needs to be treated, as well as newer endoscopic procedures that can be performed using catheters that are passed through an artery in the leg to reach areas of the brain affected by blocked arteries, aneurysms and other kinds of abnormalities. Neurosurgeons also work with other specialists such as neurologists, radiologists and cardiologists as needed to plan and perform surgery, and provide the right follow up care after surgery.

Should you see a neurologist or a neurosurgeon? Both of these specialists provide care for a wide range of neurological disorders, and which you see depends on your unique circumstances. Generally, though, you can expect to see a neurologist who performs tests to diagnose your condition and plan a course of treatment, and that can include a referral to a neurosurgeon if necessary. Both of these specialists provide care for a wide range of neurological disorders, and they can work with your health care team to develop a treatment plan that’s right for you.