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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).
- Movements you choose to make (voluntary) and those that happen without your thinking about them (involuntary). These include breathing and heartbeat.
- The ability to think and reason. It allows you to be awake (conscious), to have thoughts and memories, and to use language.
The nervous system is divided into two parts:
- The brain and spinal cord (central nervous system).
- The nerve cells that control how you feel pain, touch, or temperature (peripheral nervous system).
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:
- Blood supply problems (vascular disorders).
- Injuries (trauma), especially injuries to the head and spinal cord.
- Problems that are present at birth (congenital).
- Mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders, depression, or psychosis.
- Exposure to toxins, such as carbon monoxide, arsenic, and lead.
- Problems that cause a gradual loss of function. Examples include:
- Infections. These may cause swelling in the:
- Overuse of or withdrawal from prescription and nonprescription medicines, illegal drugs, or alcohol.
- A brain tumor.
- Organ system failure. Examples include:
- Respiratory failure.
- Heart failure.
- Liver failure (hepatic encephalopathy).
- Kidney failure (uremia).
- Other conditions. Some examples include:
A sudden 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 these 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. 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
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.
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.
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.
Preparing For Your Appointment
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared for your appointment.
- Confusion, Memory Loss, and Altered Alertness
- Dizziness: Lightheadedness and Vertigo
- Eye Problems, Noninjury
- Facial Problems, Noninjury
- Finger, Hand, and Wrist Problems, Noninjury
- Ringing in the Ears (Tinnitus)
- Shoulder Problems and Injuries
- Toe, Foot, and Ankle Problems, Noninjury
- Weakness and Fatigue
Current as of: August 25, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine