What Is a Neurologist? Discover the Doctors Dedicated to the Nervous System


The idea of doing just enough has never appealed to you. Rather than pursuing an easy course load in high school and college, you took classes that took serious brainpower. You genuinely enjoy challenging yourself.

If you’re anything like other pre-meds, you might find yourself wondering what type of doctor you should become. Given your natural curiosity and desire to solve problems, neurology could be a good choice. In fact, one survey of practicing neurologists found they were drawn to the field due to its intellectual content.

But just what is a neurologist? The short explanation is these physicians work with individuals who have conditions related to the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. It’s a truly fascinating career for the right person, but you probably need to delve a little deeper before you can determine whether it’s a good fit for you.

What is a neurologist, exactly?

Neurologists are essentially medical specialists who treat conditions related to the brain, spine, and other parts of the nervous system. While you wouldn’t be the first to confuse neurology with neurosurgery, they’re very different disciplines. Neurologists are not surgical specialists.

Neurologists make diagnoses, prescribe treatments, and help manage neurological conditions. They work with individuals who have Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, migraines, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and more. Neurologists are well-versed in diagnostic technologies. They might, for example, recommend magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or electromyography.

What do neurologists do?

Exactly what a neurologist’s day looks like will depend on a number of factors, including their area of focus. Patients are typically referred to these specialists by their primary care provider when it appears there’s a neurological condition at play.

When neurologists are seeing a new patient for the first time, the consultation will include a discussion about medical history and symptoms. The physician will also perform a physical exam, often focusing on movements and balance.

Neurologists then move on to tests, which will vary depending on what the patient is experiencing. They may conduct procedures involving cranial nerves, motor systems and coordination, sensation, cognitive abilities, and the vegetative nervous system—subconscious functions like breathing and pulse. Neurologists may recommend further testing with different diagnostic technologies if necessary.

With existing patients, the process is a little different. These individuals have been working with their neurologist for some time already, so visits are mostly about managing a known condition. A neurologist working with a patient who has Parkinson’s disease, for example, may prescribe and adjust medications, recommend physical therapy, or suggest surgery.

How do you become a neurologist?

Every physician’s journey starts out the same way. After completing college, you need to attend a four-year medical school. During that time, you’ll dedicate two years to lab and classroom learning and two years to clinical rotations. Upon graduating, you’ll receive your medical degree.

You’ll also begin the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) series and apply for residency positions during your medical education. Most students take the USMLE Step 1 near the end of their second year, then take both portions of the USMLE Step 2 in their third or fourth year. You’ll submit completed residency applications in the fall of your fourth year, attend interviews into the winter, then learn where you’ll complete your training on Match Day.

Residency for neurology is four years, but your first year of postgraduate training will be an internship. While some residencies combine both training portions into one program, others require you to find an intern position independently. And if you’re interested in specializing even further, you’ll need to complete additional fellowship training.

Lastly, you’ll need to obtain board certification and complete any additional state-specific licensing requirements. At this point, you’re able to begin practicing as a neurologist.

What are some neurology subspecialties?

Neurologists have the option to specialize even further if they choose. Some obtain a special qualification in child neurology, which qualifies them to work with children who have neurological disorders. Many also choose to seek subspecialty certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. You can obtain certification in a number of neurology subspecialties.

Here’s a taste of some of the options:

Brain injury medicine: Physicians in this subspecialty focus on individuals who’ve suffered a brain injury, working to provide quality care throughout the recovery process.

Clinical neurophysiology: These specialists spend their careers treating nervous system disorders using both clinical evaluation and electrophysiologic testing.

Epilepsy: Neurologists in this specialization work specifically with individuals who have recurrent seizures or seizure disorders.

Hospice and palliative medicine: These physicians provide end-of-life care for patients, working to address physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs of those individuals and their families.

Neurocritical care: Specialists in this area of expertise provide intensive care to patients with life-threatening neurological conditions.

Neurodevelopmental disabilities: This subspecialty focuses on chronic conditions that affect both the developing and mature nervous system, including cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, and learning disabilities.

Neuromuscular medicine: These specialists diagnose and treat conditions that affect the nerves and muscles, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and muscular dystrophy.

Pain medicine: Physicians in this neurology specialty work with patients who have acute, chronic, and cancer-related pain. They coordinate care with other specialists as well.

Sleep medicine: These neurologists are trained to manage clinical sleep conditions.

Vascular neurology: Physicians who practice vascular neurology treat conditions that affect the structure and function of blood vessels supplying the brain and spinal cord. They’re sometimes called stroke specialists.

What’s the salary and job outlook like for neurologists?

As a whole, doctors are well-compensated for the work they do. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median annual salary of all physicians and surgeons is equal to or greater than $208,000. Because many neurologists go on to complete more training than some of their peers, they typically stand to earn more. The latest report on physician compensation from Medscape estimates neurologists earn $244,000 annually.

These physicians are in demand, too. Employment of neurologists is projected to grow between seven and 10 through 2028. That’s faster than the average for all occupations.

Let your curiosity carry you

You can see neurology is a challenging, but fascinating career. It could be a great field for you if you know you’re meant to be a physician and crave something that will push you. After all, what is a neurologist if not a problem-solver who specializes in the nervous system?

But before you can even think about pursuing neurology, you need to complete your base medical education and training. You’ll need to start with the initial process of applying to medical school. Learn more about what requirements you need to complete by visiting our article, “A Sneak Peek at the Medical School Application Process.”

* This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.

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