With so many medical specialties, it’s not always easy to determine the difference between physicians. If you are trying to get diagnosed for a medical condition, it’s important to understand what type of specialist to see and when. A neurosurgeon and a neurologist both specialize in the treatment of medical problems affecting the central nervous system. The central nervous system controls most of the functions of the body and mind, consisting of the brain and spinal cord.
A neurologist treats diseases and conditions of the brain and nervous system, but they do not perform surgery. Some of the common conditions they treat include headaches, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, sleep disorders, pain, brain tumors, peripheral nerve disorders, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Some neurologists focus on a subspecialty like neurophysiology, pediatric neurology, epilepsy, vascular neurology, behavioral neurology, or others.
One common myth is that neurosurgeons are just brain surgeons. However, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), they typically spend a lot more time on spine conditions and procedures than brain conditions and procedures. Common conditions neurosurgeons treat are back pain, neck pain, sciatica, herniated disks, degenerative diseases of the spine, cerebrovascular disorders, brain and spinal tumors, and stroke. In addition, since the nervous system extends from your brain to your spine and your nerves branch out into your entire body, they treat conditions that present symptoms in one part of your body that are actually related to a problem in the central nervous system. For example, carpal tunnel symptoms are sometimes related to a problem in your cervical spine (neck area).
Although they can perform very complex surgeries, neurosurgeons typically use non-operative treatment plans before performing surgery. If surgery is required, minimally invasive techniques are used whenever possible. Neurosurgeons are also on call for emergency room physicians when a patient has trauma involving the brain and spinal cord.
DEGREE AND TRAINING
Neurologists undergo four years of pre-medical education at a college or university, four years of medical school resulting in an MD or DO degree, one year of internship, and at least three years of specialty training in a neurology residence program. Some neurologists elect to take additional training in an area of interest such as stroke, movement disorders, or sleep medicine.
A neurosurgeon’s training is the longest training period of any medical specialty. In addition to four years of pre-medical education, four years of medical school, and a year of internship, their residency is five to seven years. After that, many pursue a fellowship to specialize in an area such as spine, pediatric neurosurgery, or peripheral nerve surgery.
FINDING THE RIGHT SPECIALIST
There is some overlap between these two types of specialists and the conditions they treat. Sometimes these doctors work collaboratively; a neurologist can refer their patients to a neurosurgeon when surgery is required (such as for a brain tumor) and then the patient returns to the neurologist for long-term management. If you have a condition or symptoms that you think require a brain and spine specialist, ask your primary care physician about which type of specialist to see. Our multidisciplinary team of physicians at The Center are equipped with the latest technologies and have the experience to treat any injury or condition that affects your musculoskeletal system.