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Have you ever had one of those questionable headaches? Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “yes, in fact just the other day I had this weird pain on the top of my head.” Many of us have probably had a similar thought at one point in our lives about that same kind of headache:

I should call the doctor. This doesn’t feel right…


While there are many simple reasons for a headache, such as stress or eye strain, if something is wrong it could be life-changing or life-threatening. In fact, with over 600 different types of neurological disorders, nearly 1 in 6 people will suffer from one and need to seek neurological treatment.

But when is it time to call the doctor and should you make an appointment with a neurologist or a neurosurgeon? And what is the difference between a neurologist and a neurosurgeon?

Neurologist vs. neurosurgeon

Our nervous system is composed of our brain, spine and connecting nerves. A neurologist and neurosurgeon both treat patients with neurological disorders that impact the brain, spinal cord, nerves and their surrounding and supporting structures. These structures include the skull, spine, blood vessels, membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord and membranes lining the skull and vertebral canal.

“Neurologists are experts at evaluating patients and making a diagnosis. In many cases, they continue to treat patients with medications and other non-surgical treatments after a diagnosis,” explains Dr. Michel Lacroix, Chair of Neurosurgery and Neurosurgical Oncology for the Geisinger Neuroscience Institute. “However, when surgery is needed, they will enlist the help of a neurosurgical colleague. Many patients may work with both specialists, depending on their needs.”

A neurologist must train for at least one year in internal medicine and three years in a neurology residency program after completing medical school. Most undergo additional fellowship training to specialize in one area of neurology. 

A neurosurgeon completes additional training after medical school as well, including at least one year of residency in surgery and six more years of residency in neurosurgery. Many neurosurgeons choose to complete fellowship training, which is additional training to further their focus within the field of neurosurgery. 

When you first see someone in the neurology department, you’ll likely meet with a neurologist. During your first appointment, your neurologist will conduct an initial screening, which may include setting you up with and evaluating an MRI. 

If a neurologist notices anything troublesome that may require surgery, such as a tumor, he or she will then refer you to a neurosurgeon.

Once you meet with a neurosurgeon, you may undergo more testing to determine whether surgery is needed. A neurosurgeon may suggest trying other forms of treatment before scheduling surgery. Neurosurgeons not only perform surgery but will work with you in diagnosing your condition and supporting you through both non-surgical and surgical treatment.

Reasons to see a neurologist or a neurosurgeon

Knowing when it’s time to see a neurologist means looking for some key indicators, which is why it’s important to seek medical advice early on. Your primary care physician is a good starting point and the first person you may want to speak with about your concerns. You can begin by discussing reasons to see a neurologist with them.

You can also reach out directly to a neurologist on your own. “However, consulting with your family doctor first will ensure that you’re referred to the most appropriate neurology specialists if necessary,” says Dr. Neil Holland, Chair of Neurology for the Geisinger Neuroscience Institute. “This is also important if your insurance requires you to have a referral before seeing a specialist.” 

Here are some of the signs that may indicate that it’s time to seek neurological care:

  • chronic neck or back pain
  • dizziness or vertigo
  • frequent migraines
  • issues with movement
  • numbness or tingling
  • severe headaches
  • sudden vision loss
  • trouble sleeping
  • weakness

 

When you’re looking for a neurologist or a neurosurgeon, the team at Geisinger is experienced in all variety of neurological conditions. Our board-certified, fellowship-trained doctors and surgeons treat a full spectrum of neurological disorders including:

  • brain, spine, spinal cord and nerve tumors
  • migraine
  • neuromuscular disorders
  • epilepsy
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • stroke
  • brain aneurysm and other cerebrovascular disease
  • spinal disorders
  • pituitary tumors

 

As always, when in doubt, call your doctor. It’s better to check your persistent symptoms than to let them go too long and develop into a larger problem. Reaching out is the first step to knowing when it’s time to call a neurologist.

Whether you have a referral or are looking for a doctor without one, our neurologists are ready to meet with you to answer your questions. Learn more about the neurology and neurosurgery team at Geisinger.

Persistent headaches may mean it’s time to see a neurologist or neurosurgeon.
 

Request an appointment.