7 Common Neurological Disorders You Need to Know

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You're familiar with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, and they're probably the conditions that come to mind when you think of neurological disorders. But there are many other diseases and conditions that affect the brain and its ability to control the body. Some are chronic, progressive, or life-threatening, while others are manageable conditions that people live with every day. And some can come out of nowhere to strike once or a few times, then vanish just as mysteriously. Here’s a guide to 7 common neurological conditions to be on the lookout for.

1. Epilepsy

Also called seizure disorder, epilepsy is diagnosed when someone experiences repeated seizures that don't have another specific cause, such as a stroke. When you think of seizure, you probably picture the jerky, out-of-control movements, collapsing, and thrashing depicted onscreen. But confusion and disorientation, staring sightlessly, garbling speech, and losing consciousness (sometimes while not appearing to do so) are also symptoms of a seizure. In particular, children are likely to suffer from "absence seizures," in which they stare into space, sometimes making repeated movements such as smacking their lips or blinking their eyes. Many epileptics experience partial seizures, also called focal seizures, that affect just one section of the brain. These seizures cause a wide range of sensory and physical symptoms, such as seeing or hearing things that aren't there, noticing a sudden unpleasant odor or taste in the mouth, or uncontrolled movements such as one finger or limb stiffening or jerking. People with epilepsy typically have a pattern, repeating the same type of seizure they've had in the past. Many things can trigger seizures, from stress or sleep deprivation to alcohol and certain foods. Some epileptics are more likely to have seizures at night or at a certain time during the day. Reflex epilepsy refers to seizures triggered by flashing lights, video games, or certain kinds of repetitive sounds, or even touching specific points on the body.

2. Non-Epileptic Seizures

It's a common misunderstanding that having seizures necessarily means you'll be diagnosed with epilepsy. Did you know that two percent of all adults will have at least one seizure at some point during their lives? And of these, two-thirds will never have another one. Sometimes there's a known cause, such as a high fever. But in many cases the cause is never found, in which case the seizure is referred to as "idiopathic." Seizures are most common early in childhood or late in life. In babies and children, high fevers, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and blood sugar problems are the most common causes of seizures. In some cases, a baby or child may have repeated seizures, possibly from an injury during birth or a birth defect, but the problem resolves itself and does not develop into epilepsy. Brain injuries from head trauma, stroke, or a brain tumor are common causes of seizures in adults. Alcoholics may experience seizures during withdrawal. But in half of all adults who begin having seizures, the cause is unknown.

3. Migraine

By far the most common neurological condition, migraine affects one in ten people worldwide, including 40 million Americans. While migraine was previously thought to be a vascular condition, caused by restricted blood flow to the brain, recent research shows that migraine is a condition of the central nervous system that causes physical changes in the brain. Extremely painful headaches are the best-known migraine feature, but migraines actually cause a spectrum of symptoms that involve both the brain and nerves throughout the body. Some people experience auras or more extreme visual hallucinations; others feel a tingling in their hands and feet; others get dizzy, nauseous, and weak. As migraine progresses, some people experience a type of facial paralysis known as Bell's palsy. Migraine treatments generally work by increasing blood flow to the brain, but experts say the best strategy for migraine is careful management of the triggers that tend to bring them on. These can include cutting out caffeine, avoiding alcohol and certain foods, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and losing weight. Recent studies show that people who are obese or seriously overweight are five times more likely to develop migraine.

4. Syncope

You may not have heard of syncope, but you've heard the nonmedical definition: sudden, temporary loss of consciousness, or fainting. Syncope occurs when something interrupts blood flow to the brain. It's quite common, affecting 3.5 percent of all adults and more than 6 percent of people over 75. You might feel weak, dizzy, or unsteady on your feet, or you might fall without warning. Or you might have a sudden blackout. Some people who experience repeated episodes of syncope begin to recognize warning signs, or "premonitory symptoms," which can include heart palpitations, feeling light-headed, or getting nauseous. When this happens, sitting or lying down with your legs up can prevent fainting. Syncope is sometimes the first sign of an underlying medical condition such as heart disease or diabetes. Some people suffer from syncope as a result of orthostatic or postural hypotension, a type of low blood pressure in which blood doesn't return to the brain quickly enough when you go from sitting or lying down to standing. It's important to bring fainting to your doctor's attention so she can screen you for medical problems that may be causing it.

5. Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

MS is an autoimmune (or "immune-mediated") disorder in which the immune system attacks the myelin coating that protects nerves. As scar tissue forms along the nerves, it interferes with the impulses by which the brain communicates with the body. Often the first sign of MS is blurry vision or losing sight in one eye. Tingling or numbness in the face, arms, legs, feet, and hands is the other most common early sign. The numbness can result in balance problems or feeling weak in your legs or in your grip. Research suggests that MS is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental triggers, and there's a wide spectrum of symptoms, from mild to severe. It's two to three times as common in women as in men, and it typically appears between the ages of 20 and 50, although children can develop MS as well. While most people think of MS as a severe, degenerative condition, there are actually four different types of MS, which follow different courses. The most common kind, relapsing-remitting, accounts for 85 percent of those with MS. People with this type experience flare-ups followed by periods of recovery. The relapses typically get worse over time, but with new medications to control them, many people live to old age, managing MS throughout their lives.

6. Neuropathy

A symptom familiar to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, neuropathy is the name for tingling, numbness, pain, and loss of feeling as a result of interference or damage to nerves. Peripheral neuropathy, felt in the outer reaches of the body, is a common problem for diabetics; it's caused by elevated blood sugar, which interferes with circulation and nerve impulses. Peripheral neuropathy can also develop after certain kinds of surgery, as well as from shingles. Neuropathy can strike the central nervous system as a result of multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, a stroke, a brain tumor, or an injury to the spinal cord. Neuropathy may be temporary and resolve when the cause is removed; this typically occurs when cancer patients stop chemo or after a relapse of multiple sclerosis. But in many cases the nerve damage is permanent.

7. Neuralgia

When a nerve becomes damaged, you may experience severe, chronic nerve pain, known as neuralgia. A more severe form of neuropathy, this happens when the protective coating called myelin is stripped away, leaving the nerve exposed and causing stabbing, burning, or shock-like pain. Two forms of neuralgia, occipital and trigeminal, affect the nerves in the neck, face, throat, and back of the head. Post-herpetic neuralgia is the shooting nerve pain often left behind after a case of shingles. But neuralgia can occur throughout the central and peripheral nervous system, usually as a result of an underlying condition such as multiple sclerosis, shingles, or diabetes. In recent years, Lyme disease has become a rising cause of neuralgia, and new research suggests that fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome may be results of damage to the central nervous system as well.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio