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Symptoms of Brain, Spinal Cord, and Nerve Disorders

Disorders that affect the brain, spinal cord, and nerves are called neurologic disorders.

Neurologic symptoms - symptoms caused by a disorder that affects part or all of the nervous system - can vary greatly because the nervous system controls so many different body functions. Symptoms can include all forms of pain, including headache and back pain. Muscles, skin sensation, the special senses (vision, taste, smell, and hearing), and other senses depend on nerves to function normally. Thus, neurologic symptoms can include muscle weakness or lack of coordination, abnormal sensations in the skin, and disturbances of vision, taste, smell, and hearing.

Neurologic disorders can interfere with sleep, making a person anxious or excited at bedtime and thus tired and sleepy during the day.

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

What Is a Neurologic Symptom?

Neurologic symptoms—symptoms caused by a disorder that affects part or all of the nervous system—can vary greatly because the nervous system controls so many different body functions. Symptoms can include all forms of pain and can involve muscle function, sensation, the special senses (vision, taste, smell, and hearing), sleep, awareness (consciousness), and mental function (cognition).

The following are some relatively common neurologic symptoms:


  • Back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Headache
  • Pain along a nerve pathway (as in sciatica or shingles)

Muscle malfunction

  • Weakness
  • Tremor (rhythmic shaking of a body part)
  • Paralysis
  • Involuntary (unintended) movements (such as tics)
  • Abnormalities in walking
  • Clumsiness or poor coordination
  • Muscle spasms
  • Rigidity, stiffness, and spasticity
  • Slowed movements

Changes in sensation

  • Numbness of the skin
  • Tingling or a pins-and-needles sensation
  • Hypersensitivity to light touch
  • Loss of sensation for touch, cold, heat, or pain
  • Loss of position sense (knowing where parts of the body are in space)

Changes in the special senses

  • Disturbances of smell and taste
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Partial or complete loss of vision
  • Double vision
  • Deafness
  • Ringing or other sounds originating in the ears (tinnitus)

Other symptoms

  • Vertigo
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Slurred speech (dysarthria)

Sleep problems

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Falling asleep uncontrollably (as in narcolepsy) or sleeping too much

Changes in consciousness

  • Fainting
  • Confusion or delirium
  • Seizures (ranging from brief lapses in consciousness to severe muscle contractions and jerking throughout the body)
  • Coma
  • Stupor

Changes in cognition (mental ability)

  • Difficulty understanding language or using language to speak or write (aphasia)
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty with common motor skills, such as striking a match or combing hair, despite normal strength (apraxia)
  • Inability to recognize familiar objects (agnosia) or familiar faces (prosopagnosia)
  • Inability to sustain concentration when doing a task
  • Inability to distinguish right from left
  • Inability to do simple arithmetic (acalculia)
  • Poor visual-spatial comprehension (for example, being unable to draw a clock or becoming lost driving in a familiar neighborhood)
  • Dementia (dysfunction of several cognitive functions)
  • Neglect of one side of the body or denial that it exists (often due to a brain injury)

The characteristics and pattern of symptoms help doctors diagnose the neurologic disorder. Doctors also do a neurologic examination, which can detect disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves in other parts of the body (peripheral nerves).

Peripheral nerves include

  • The nerves that connect the head, face, eyes, nose, muscles, and ears to the brain (cranial nerves)

  • The nerves that connect the spinal cord to the rest of the body: 31 pairs of spinal nerves

  • Nerves that run throughout the body

Some peripheral nerves (sensory nerves) carry sensory information (about such things as pain, temperature, vibration, smells, and sounds) to the spinal cord and then to the brain. Others (motor nerves) carry impulses that control muscle movement from the brain through the spinal cord to the muscles. Still others (called the autonomic nerves) carry information about the body and external environment to the internal organs, such as the blood vessels, stomach, intestine, liver, kidneys, and bladder. In response to this information, autonomic nerves stimulate or inhibit the organs they supply. These nerves work automatically (autonomously), without a person’s conscious effort.

If motor nerves are damaged, muscles may weaken or become paralyzed. If sensory nerves are damaged, abnormal sensations may be felt or sensation, sight, or another sense may be impaired or lost. If autonomic nerves are damaged, the organ they regulate may malfunction. For example, blood pressure may not increase as it normally does when a person stands, and the person may feel light-headed.