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Nervous System Problems

Overview

The nervous system is a complex, highly specialized network. It organizes, explains, and directs interactions between you and the world around you. The nervous system controls:

  • Sight, hearing, taste, smell, and feeling (sensation).
  • Voluntary and involuntary functions. These include movement, balance, and coordination. It also regulates the actions of most other body systems, such as blood flow and blood pressure.
  • The ability to think and reason. It allows you to be conscious and have thoughts, memories, and language.

The nervous system is divided into two parts:

  • The brain and spinal cord (central nervous system, or CNS).
  • The nerve cells that control voluntary and involuntary movements (peripheral nervous system, or PNS).

The symptoms depend on which area of the nervous system is involved. They also depend on what's causing the problem. These problems may occur slowly and cause a gradual loss of function (degenerative). Or they may occur suddenly and cause life-threatening problems (acute). Symptoms may be mild or severe. Some serious conditions, diseases, and injuries that can cause nervous system problems include:

A sudden (acute) nervous system problem can cause many different symptoms. It depends on the area of the nervous system involved. Stroke and transient ischemic attack (TIA) are common examples of acute problems. You may suddenly have one or more symptoms, such as:

  • Numbness, tingling,or weakness. Or you may not be able to move a part or all of one side of the body (paralysis).
  • Dimness, blurring, double vision, or loss of vision in one or both eyes.
  • Loss of speech, trouble talking, or trouble understanding speech.
  • Sudden, severe headache.
  • Feeling dizzy or unsteady or not being able to stand or walk, especially if you also have other symptoms.
  • Confusion or a change in level of consciousness or behavior.
  • Severe nausea or vomiting.

Seizures can also cause sudden changes in consciousness, feeling (sensation), emotion, or thought. Some people have abnormal body movements, such as muscle twitching. How often the seizures occur and how severe they are depend on the cause of the seizures and the area of the brain involved.

Diabetes can cause problems with balance. This can be a result of peripheral neuropathy or stroke.

Vertigo and dizziness are problems of balance and coordination (equilibrium). Vertigo is often caused by a medicine or a problem of the inner ear or brain. Emotional distress, dehydration, blood pressure problems, and other diseases can all make you feel dizzy.

Most headaches aren't caused by serious central nervous system problems. The pain that comes with a headache can be a throbbing or a piercing pain, such as with a migraine. Or it can be severe pain that comes and goes over several days, such as with cluster headaches. Headaches are usually caused by problems with the sinuses, scalp, or muscles of or around the head.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you think you may have a problem with your nervous system?
The nervous system controls movement and balance, the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch), your thought processes, and how awake and aware you are. It includes the brain, the spinal cord, and all the nerves in the body.
Yes
Nervous system problem
No
Nervous system problem
How old are you?
Less than 4 years
Less than 4 years
4 years or older
4 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female

The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.

  • If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
  • If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
  • If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Did the symptoms start after a head injury?
Yes
Symptoms began after a head injury
No
Symptoms began after a head injury
Have you been getting headaches?
Yes
Headaches
No
Headaches
Are you concerned about seizures?
Yes
Seizure concerns
No
Seizure concerns
Could you be having symptoms of a stroke?
Yes
Symptoms of stroke
No
Symptoms of stroke
Did you pass out completely (lose consciousness)?
Yes
Lost consciousness
No
Lost consciousness
If you are answering for someone else: Is the person unconscious now?
(If you are answering this question for yourself, say no.)
Yes
Unconscious now
No
Unconscious now
Are you back to your normal level of alertness?
After passing out, it's normal to feel a little confused, weak, or lightheaded when you first wake up or come to. But unless something else is wrong, these symptoms should pass pretty quickly and you should soon feel about as awake and alert as you normally do.
Yes
Has returned to normal after loss of consciousness
No
Has returned to normal after loss of consciousness
Did the loss of consciousness occur during the past 24 hours?
Yes
Loss of consciousness in past 24 hours
No
Loss of consciousness in past 24 hours
Has there been a decrease in how alert or aware you are or how well you can think and respond?
Yes
Decreased level of consciousness
No
Decreased level of consciousness
Is this something that is part of a medical problem you already have or that you have discussed with a doctor before?
Yes
Decreased level of consciousness is typical
No
Decreased level of consciousness is typical
Is the problem:
Quickly getting worse (over minutes to hours)?
Decreased level of consciousness is quickly getting worse
Slowly getting worse (over days)?
Decreased level of consciousness is slowly getting worse
Staying about the same (not better or worse)?
Decreased level of consciousness is unchanged
Getting better?
Decreased level of consciousness is improving
Are you back to your normal level of alertness?
Yes
Returned to normal after decreased level of consciousness
No
Returned to normal after decreased level of consciousness
Is the problem:
Getting worse?
Decreased level of consciousness is getting worse
Staying the same (not better or worse)?
Decreased level of consciousness is unchanged
Getting better?
Decreased level of consciousness is improving
Did you have symptoms of a stroke that are now gone?
A transient ischemic attack (TIA) causes the same symptoms as a stroke except that they go away within a few minutes. A TIA is a warning sign that you may soon have a stroke.
Yes
Symptoms of TIA
No
Symptoms of TIA
Did these symptoms occur within the past 48 hours (2 days)?
Yes
Symptoms of TIA occurred within past 48 hours
No
Symptoms of TIA occurred within past 48 hours
Yes
Other symptoms that may be related to nervous system
No
Other symptoms that may be related to nervous system
Have these problems been:
Quickly getting worse (over minutes to hours)?
Nervous system problems are quickly getting worse
Slowly getting worse (over days to weeks)?
Nervous system problems are slowly getting worse
Staying about the same (not better or worse)?
Nervous system problems are unchanged
Getting better?
Nervous system problems are getting better
Do you think that a medicine may be causing your symptoms?
Think about whether the symptoms started after you began using a new medicine or a higher dose of a medicine.
Yes
Medicine may be causing symptoms
No
Medicine may be causing symptoms
Have the symptoms lasted for more than 2 weeks?
Yes
Nervous system symptoms for more than 2 weeks
No
Nervous system symptoms for more than 2 weeks

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Symptoms of a stroke may include:

  • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or paralysis in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
  • Sudden vision changes.
  • Sudden trouble speaking.
  • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
  • Sudden problems with walking or balance.
  • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.

Problems with the nervous system can cause a variety of symptoms almost anywhere in the body. A few examples of symptoms that may be caused by a nervous system problem include:

  • Numbness or tingling.
  • Weakness or a reduced ability to move any part of the body (not caused by pain).
  • Tremors, tics, or other unusual movements, such as a walking (gait) change or mouth smacking.
  • Coordination problems, such as dropping things, tripping, or falling more often.
  • Vision changes.
  • Changes in hearing, taste, or smell.

Many prescription and nonprescription medicines can cause symptoms related to the nervous system. A few examples are:

  • Antipsychotic medicines.
  • Pain medicines.
  • Medicines taken to control nausea.
  • Medicines used to treat Parkinson's disease, restless legs syndrome, and other nervous system problems.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Seizures
Head Injury, Age 4 and Older
Headaches
Head Injury, Age 3 and Younger

Self-Care

Specific home treatment for symptoms related to a nervous system problem depends on the cause of the problem. Keep a diary of your symptoms to review with your doctor at your next appointment.

When to call for help during self-care

Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:

  • Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.

Learn more

Preparing For Your Appointment

Credits

Current as of: December 13, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine