What is the nervous system?

Medical illustration of the nervous system

The nervous system is a complex, sophisticated system that regulates and coordinates body activities. It is made up of two major divisions:

  • central nervous system - consisting of the brain and spinal cord

  • peripheral nervous system - consisting of all other neural elements

In addition to the brain and spinal cord, principal organs of the nervous system are:

  • eyes

  • ears

  • sensory organs of taste

  • sensory organs of smell

  • sensory receptors located in the skin, joints, muscles, and other parts of the body

What are some disorders of the nervous system?

The nervous system is vulnerable to various disorders. It can be damaged by:

  • injuries

  • infections

  • degeneration

  • structural defects

  • tumors

Disorders of the nervous system may involve:

  • vascular disorders - such as stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA), subarachnoid hemorrhage, subdural hemorrhage and hematoma, and extradural hemorrhage

  • infections - such as meningitis, encephalitis, polio, and epidural abscess

  • structural disorders - such as brain or spinal cord injury, Bell's palsy, cervical spondylosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, brain or spinal cord tumors, peripheral neuropathy, and Guillain-Barre syndrome

  • functional disorders - such as headache, epilepsy, dizziness, and neuralgia

  • degeneration - such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Huntington's chorea, and Alzheimer's disease

Signs and symptoms of nervous system disorders:

General signs and symptoms that may indicate that a patient needs to see a physician for possible nervous system disorders include:

  • persistent or sudden onset of a headache

  • a headache that changes or is different

  • loss of feeling or tingling

  • weakness or loss of muscle strength

  • sudden loss of sight

  • forgetfulness

  • lack of coordination

  • muscle rigidity

  • muscle spasms or tic

Physicians who treat nervous system disorders:

Physicians who treat nervous system disorders may have to spend a lot of time working with the patient before making a probable diagnosis of the specific condition. Many times, this involves performing numerous tests to eliminate other conditions, so that the probable diagnosis can be made.


Neurological Surgery

Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

The branch of medicine that manages nervous system disorders is called neurology. The medical doctors who treat nervous system disorders are called neurologists.

The branch of medicine that provides surgical intervention for nervous system disorders is called neurosurgery, or neurological surgery. Surgeons who operate as a treatment team for nervous system disorders are called neurological surgeons or neurosurgeons.

The branch of medicine that provides rehabilitative care for patients with nervous system disorders is called physical medicine and rehabilitation. Physicians who work with patients in the rehabilitation process are called physiatrists.

For more information about the University of Maryland Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery, or to make an appointment, call the University Physicians Consultation and Referral Service at 1-800-492-5538 (patients) or 1-800-373-4111 (physicians).