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Nervous System Problems
The nervous system is a complex, highly specialized network. It organizes, explains, and directs interactions between you and the world around you. The nervous system controls:
- Sight, hearing, taste, smell, and feeling (sensation).
- 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.
- The ability to think and reason. The nervous system allows you to be conscious and have thoughts, memories, and language.
The symptoms of a nervous system problem depend on which area of the nervous system is involved and what is causing the problem. Nervous system problems may occur slowly and cause a gradual loss of function (degenerative). Or they may occur suddenly and cause life-threatening problems (acute). Symptoms may be mild or severe. Some serious conditions, diseases, and injuries that can cause nervous system problems include:
- Blood supply problems (vascular disorders).
- Injuries (trauma), especially injuries to the head and spinal cord.
- Problems that are present at birth (congenital).
- Mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders, depression, or psychosis.
- Exposure to toxins, such as carbon monoxide, arsenic, or lead.
- Problems that cause a gradual loss of function (degenerative). Examples include:
- Infections. These may occur in the:
- Overuse of or withdrawal from prescription and nonprescription medicines, illegal drugs, or alcohol.
- A brain tumor.
- Organ system failure. Examples include:
- Respiratory failure.
- Heart failure.
- Liver failure (hepatic encephalopathy).
- Kidney failure (uremia).
- Other conditions. Some examples include:
A sudden (acute) nervous system problem can cause many different symptoms, depending on the area of the nervous system involved. Stroke and transient ischemic attack (TIA) are common examples of acute problems. You may experience the sudden onset of one or more symptoms, such as:
- Numbness, tingling, weakness, or inability to move a part or all of one side of the body (paralysis).
- Dimness, blurring, double vision, or loss of vision in one or both eyes.
- Loss of speech, trouble talking, or trouble understanding speech.
- Sudden, severe headache.
- Dizziness, unsteadiness, or the inability to stand or walk, especially if other symptoms are present.
- Confusion or a change in level of consciousness or behavior.
- Severe nausea or vomiting.
Seizures can also cause sudden changes in consciousness, feeling (sensation), emotion, or thought. Abnormal body movements, such as muscle twitching, may or may not be present. How often the seizures occur and how severe they are depend on the cause of the seizures and the area of the brain involved. For more information, see the topic Seizures.
Diabetes can cause problems with balance, either as a result of peripheral neuropathy or stroke.
Vertigo and dizziness are problems of balance and coordination (equilibrium). Vertigo is often caused by a medicine or a problem of the inner ear or brain. Emotional distress, dehydration, blood pressure problems, and other diseases can all cause feelings of dizziness. For more information, see the topic Dizziness: Lightheadedness and Vertigo.
Most headaches are not caused by serious central nervous system problems. The pain that comes with a headache can range from a throbbing or a piercing pain, such as with a migraine, to severe pain that comes and goes over several days, such as with cluster headaches. Headaches are usually caused by problems with the sinuses, scalp, or muscles of or around the head. For more information, see the topic Headaches.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
Symptoms of a stroke may include:
- Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or paralysis in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
- Sudden vision changes.
- Sudden trouble speaking.
- Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
- Sudden problems with walking or balance.
- A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.
Problems with the nervous system can cause a variety of symptoms almost anywhere in the body. A few examples of symptoms that may be caused by a nervous system problem include:
- Numbness or tingling.
- Weakness or a reduced ability to move any part of the body (not caused by pain).
- Tremors, tics, or other unusual movements, such as a walking (gait) change or mouth smacking.
- Coordination problems, such as dropping things, tripping, or falling more often.
- Vision changes.
- Changes in hearing, taste, or smell.
Many prescription and nonprescription medicines can cause symptoms related to the nervous system. A few examples are:
- Antipsychotic medicines.
- Pain medicines.
- Medicines taken to control nausea.
- Medicines used to treat Parkinson's disease, restless legs syndrome, and other nervous system problems.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
- Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
- You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
- You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
- You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
- Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
- If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
- If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Make an Appointment
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
- Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
- If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
- If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Specific home treatment for symptoms related to a nervous system problem depends on the cause of the problem. Check your symptoms to determine if and when you need to see your doctor. Keep a diary of your symptoms to review with your doctor at your next appointment. See an example of a diary of symptoms .
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if your symptoms become more frequent or severe during home treatment.
Follow the prevention guidelines below to keep your body and nervous system healthy:
- Exercise regularly. Talk to your doctor about an exercise plan that will be right for you.
- Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Take care of health conditions that may cause decreased nervous system functioning, such as:
- Eat a balanced diet. A balanced, low-fat diet with ample sources of vitamins B6, B12, and folate will help protect the nervous system. Make sure that your diet contains lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Drink plenty of water and other fluids. This helps prevent dehydration, which can cause confusion and memory problems.
- To prevent dehydration during hot weather and exercise, drink water, rehydration drinks, or other fluids each day.
- Drink extra water before, during, and after exercise. Take a container of water or sports drink with you when you exercise, and try to drink at least every 15 to 20 minutes.
- Limit your intake of caffeinated drinks, such as coffee and colas, which increase dehydration and can affect sleep.
- Do not use alcohol or illegal drugs, which can affect functioning long after use.
- Have your hearing or vision tested. When you do not hear or see well, it is hard for your brain to record information.
- Set priorities, and concentrate on one thing at a time. Older adults have a harder time than younger people giving their attention to more than one activity.
- Increase your attention span and ability to focus by learning new skills.
- Keep written notes. Write all your plans on a calendar where you can look at them often.
- Use a medicine box with spaces for each day. This will help you remember when to take your medicines. Take your medicines exactly as they are prescribed.
- Decrease your use of nonprescription medicines. Overuse of medicines may be the single biggest cause of nervous system problems in older adults.
- Develop a positive attitude about your abilities. Reject the notion that nervous system (neurological) functioning declines with age.
- Protect yourself from head injuries.
- Prevent falls in your home.
Preparing For Your Appointment
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
- What is your main symptom?
- When did you first notice your nervous system problem, and what were you doing at the time?
- How often have you had these symptoms?
- What area of your body is most affected?
- How long do the symptoms last?
- Do you have pain? If so, what is it like (dull, sharp, aching, throbbing)? It may be helpful to keep a pain diary .
- What seems to make your symptoms better or worse?
- Do you have other symptoms? Other symptoms may include:
- Vision loss.
- Lack of coordination.
- Do you use alcohol or illegal drugs?
- What prescription and nonprescription medicines do you take, and what are the doses? Bring all of your medicines with you to your next appointment.
- Have you had a recent illness or injury?
- Does anyone in your family have similar symptoms?
- Have you recently traveled outside of the country?
- Do you have any health risks?
Keep a diary of symptoms to review with your doctor at your next appointment.
Current as of: October 19, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
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