Neurological Symptoms

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What are the signs of neurological problems?

Neurological symptoms are symptoms caused by, or occurring in, the nervous system. The nervous system consists of two anatomic parts. The central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, acts as a central processing station. The peripheral nervous system transmits sensory information between the muscles, tissues and nerves in the rest of the body to the brain. When these connections are disrupted, neurological symptoms occur.

Neurological symptoms often originate in the peripheral nervous system and include burning, numbness, pins-and-needles (prickling) sensations, muscle weakness or paralysis, and sensitivity. These symptoms may be caused by a local injury, when the pain can be directly related to a trauma, or a systemic illness that affects your entire body. With referred pain, a more complex condition, the sensation of pain is felt in a different part of your body from where the injury or illness actually occurred. Referred pain is the most difficult to diagnose and treat.

Neurological symptoms can arise from one nerve or many. Some syndromes, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, occur when a nerve is compressed and deprived of proper blood flow. Diabetes is a common cause of peripheral neuropathies (nerve disorders), the result of nerve damage from high blood sugar. Neurological symptoms can stem from autoimmune diseases (such as lupus or Guillain-Barré syndrome) or viruses such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Epstein-Barr, or varicella-zoster.

Neurological symptoms due to a malfunctioning of the autonomic nervous system (part of the peripheral nervous system) may interrupt involuntary actions such as breathing, swallowing, bladder control, or perspiration. They may be accompanied by symptoms of low blood pressure, such as dizziness or vertigo, or loss of consciousness. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these symptoms, as they can be life threatening.

What other symptoms might occur with neurological symptoms?

Neurological symptoms may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Neurological symptoms are diverse because the nervous system governs or participates in a number of functions as well as body systems, including control of body temperature, blood pressure, muscles, digestion and appetite, movement, and sight.

Body-wide symptoms that may occur with neurological symptoms

Neurological symptoms that may accompany other symptoms affecting the nervous system including:

  • Altered smell or taste

  • Burning feeling

  • Confusion or cognitive changes

  • Fainting, lethargy, or change in your level of consciousness

  • Involuntary muscle contractions (dystonia)

  • Loss of balance

  • Muscle weakness

  • Numbness

  • Pain from an origin that does not usually cause pain or that follows the course of a specific nerve

  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part

  • Pins-and-needles (prickling) sensation

  • Sensitivity

  • Tingling

Gastrointestinal symptoms that may occur along with nerve symptoms

Neurological symptoms may accompany symptoms related to the digestive system including:

  • Difficulty chewing
  • Digestive problems
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Nausea with or without vomiting

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, neurological symptoms caused by a malfunctioning of the autonomic nervous system (part of the peripheral nervous system) may be life threatening and should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Abnormal pupil size or nonreactivity to light

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Disorientation

  • Dizziness or vertigo

  • Garbled or slurred speech or inability to speak

  • Loss of muscle coordination

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, choking

  • Seizures

  • Sudden paralysis or inability to move a body part

  • Vision changes or sudden blindness

What causes neurological symptoms?

The causes of neurological symptoms are as diverse as the nervous system itself. A common origin for neurological symptoms is the peripheral nervous system, which transmits sensory signals from the rest of the body to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).

Neurological symptoms can arise from one nerve or many. Some syndromes, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, occur when the nerve is compressed and deprived of proper blood flow. Diabetes is a common cause of neuropathies (nerve disorders), the result of nerve damage from high blood sugar. Neurological symptoms can also stem from autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or Guillain-Barré syndrome, or from infection with viruses such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or Epstein-Barr virus.

Traumatic causes of neurological symptoms

Neurological symptoms may be caused by trauma or injury such as:

  • Burns
  • Compression, crushing or severing of nerves
  • Detachment of nerves from the spinal cord
  • Electrical injury
  • Fracture or dislocation of a bone
  • Gunshot injury
  • Physical assault
  • Slipped vertebral disks or other spine conditions

Infectious or autoimmune causes of neurological symptoms

Neurological symptoms can also be caused by infections or autoimmune diseases including:

  • Epstein-Barr virus infection

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome (autoimmune nerve disorder)

  • Hepatitis C

  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection

  • Lyme disease (inflammatory bacterial disease spread by ticks)

  • Other bacterial and viral infections of the brain or meninges (membranes lining the brain and spinal cord)

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)

  • Varicella-zoster virus infection (virus that causes chickenpox and shingles)

Systemic causes of neurological symptoms

Neurological symptoms can also be caused by systemic diseases or disorders including:

  • Alcohol or illicit drug abuse

  • Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (inherited disorder affecting the peripheral nerves)

  • Connective tissue disorders

  • Diabetes (chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy)

  • Hormonal disorders such as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)

  • Medication side effects

  • Myasthenia gravis

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Neurofibromatosis (nerve tumor that can result in hearing loss)

  • Nutritional deficiencies, especially of thiamine, niacin, and vitamins E, B1, B6 or B12

  • Prolonged exposure to toxins such as lead, mercury, and other metals

  • Repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome

  • Trigeminal neuralgia (chronic pain from malfunction of the nerve responsible for facial sensation)

  • Vascular disorders

Serious or life-threatening causes of neurological symptoms

In some cases, neurological symptoms may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Epilepsy

  • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)

  • Head trauma

  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)

  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)

  • Rabies

  • Shock

  • Stroke

  • Transient ischemic attack (temporary stroke-like symptoms that may be a warning sign of an impending stroke)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of neurological symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your neurological symptoms including:

  • How long have you felt these symptoms?
  • When did you first notice these symptoms?
  • Where do you feel the symptoms?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • Have you had an accident or injury recently?
  • Are there any neurological disorders in your family?

What are the risk factors for neurological symptoms?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing neurological symptoms. Not all people with risk factors will get neurological conditions. Risk factors for neurological conditions vary according to the type of condition. Some risk factors for neurological conditions include:

  • Alcohol or illicit substance abuse
  • Diabetes
  • Exposure to toxic substances or poisons
  • Family history of degenerative neurologic conditions
  • High blood pressure
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Repeated physical motion or stress

What are the potential complications of neurological symptoms?

Because neurological symptoms can be due to serious disease or injury, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Amputation
  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part
  • Permanent nerve damage
  • Permanent physical disability
  • Permanent or chronic pain
  • Poor quality of life
  • Sleep disorder
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 9
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Peripheral nerve disorders. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/peripheralnervedisorders.html.
  2. Neuralgia. PubMed Health. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002380/
  3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.
  4. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
  5. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
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