Among the many possible members of your diabetes care team is a neurologist. Your knee-jerk reaction might be to think, “Why would I need to see a neurologist? I have diabetes!” That’s an understandable response, but there are actually some good reasons to meet with a neurologist…if you need to, that is. Learn what a neurologist does and why it might be helpful to have one on your team.
What is a neurologist?
The term “neurologist” might have you scratching your head (literally); it may even instill fear. After all, a neurologist deals with the brain. Rest assured, neurologists aren’t brain surgeons! (Those are called neurosurgeons).
A neurologist, then, is a “medical doctor with specialized training in diagnosing, treating, and managing disorders of the brain and nervous system,” according to the American Academy of Neurology. Neurologists focus on a number of disorders, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis)
- Parkinson’s disease
- MS (multiple sclerosis)
- Infections (meningitis, encephalitis)
What comprises the nervous system?
The brain is the central processing system of the body; basically, it’s the boss. It tells every part of the body what to do and when. Sometimes you’re not even aware what it’s doing. The brain controls moving, thinking, feeling, learning, and moving, and even functions that you might take for granted, like your heart beating or breathing.
But the brain can’t do it alone, so it relies on the nervous system to relay messages back and forth via the spinal cord. The spinal cord, in turn has nerves branching out from it to every organ and body part.
The brain and the spinal cord comprise the central nervous system, while the nerves outside of the central nervous system are called the peripheral nervous system.
To get cutting-edge diabetes news, strategies for blood glucose management, nutrition tips, healthy recipes, and more delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our free newsletter!
Back to what neurologists do…
The entire nervous system is extremely complex and because of this, some neurologists focus on treating certain disease or conditions. For example, a neurologist may have a subspeciality, such as:
- Headache medicine
- Pain medicine
- Sleep medicine
- Behavioral neurology
- Geriatric neurology
- Pediatric neurology
- Vascular neurology
- Autonomic disorders
Neurologists perform certain tests and procedures as part of evaluating and treating conditions. These include:
- CT (computed tomography) scans
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
- EEG (electroencephalography)
- Lumbar puncture
- Nerve conduction studies
The making of a neurologist
As with any medical specialist, someone who wants to become a neurologist must graduate from a four-year college, attend medical school, do a residency (which takes several years) specializing in neurology, and then obtain board certification from a medical organization such as the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. But the learning doesn’t stop there — neurologists must complete a 10-year certification maintenance program to make sure they’re up to speed and up to date in their career.
Neurologists and diabetes
Many people who have diabetes get referred to a neurologist due to a condition called diabetic neuropathy. This is a type of nerve damage that is caused by diabetes. There are several different types of diabetic neuropathy:
Nerve damage that affects the feet and legs, and sometimes the hands and arms.
Damage to nerves that control various organs, leading to problems with your heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, bladder, sexual function, sweat gland, eyes, and ability to sense low blood sugars (hypoglycemia).
Damage to a single nerve, say, in your hand, leg, or head.
A rare nerve damage that affects your hip, buttock, or thigh and usually affects just one side of the body.
The longer you’ve had diabetes, the higher the risk of getting neuropathy (which is why managing diabetes is so important). Other factors can put you at risk for neuropathy, including:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Kidney disease
- Being overweight
- Drinking too much alcohol
More than half of people with diabetes have peripheral neuropathy; 30% of people with diabetes have autonomic neuropathy. Untreated, neuropathy can lead to a host of problems, such as foot ulcers, falls, fractures, pain, and depression.
Neuropathy can’t be cured, but it can be managed and stopped from progressing. A neurologist will perform necessary exams and tests, and then prescribe a treatment plan for you. The plan may include medication, various types of therapies, and lifestyle changes that can alleviate pain and other symptoms, helping to improve your quality of life. While not everyone with neuropathy needs to see a neurologist, it’s worthwhile asking for a referral if you are having symptoms (especially pain) or other complications.