5 Big Signs You Should See a Neurologist

Headaches and trouble sleeping may be easy to ignore, but they could signal a serious health problem.

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If you’ve had a brain injury, seizure or stroke—the fifth leading cause of death in the United States—it’s likely you saw a neurologist at the hospital. A neurologist is trained in diagnosis and treatment of conditions of the nervous system, like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and other ailments of the brain, spinal cord and nerves.

Neurologists deal with some scary stuff, but they’re also helpful in managing smaller shifts in your health, like a change in sleep patterns or sudden memory trouble. These shifts may not seem all that significant, but they shouldn’t be ignored.

If you experience changes in balance, cognition, headaches or vision, make an appointment with your primary care physician (PCP) to be checked out. Since your PCP probably knows the most about your physical and mental health history, he may be best suited to help. After assessing your condition, your PCP can refer you to a neurologist.

We spoke with Sean Hubbard, DO, a hospital-based neurologist with Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, New Jersey, about five common, but lesser-known reasons you should be referred to a neurologist, plus signs you should head right to the emergency room.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

You can't keep your balance

2 / 6 You can't keep your balance

We all take a tumble at one point or another, whether it's missing a stair or slipping on a wet spot on the kitchen floor. Everyday trips and falls are a part of life, and nothing to call your doctor about. But if you lose your balance more than the average person or experience bouts of dizziness, spinning or faintness—and stumble or fall as a result—a visit to the doctor might be in order. “If a person suddenly starts to fall or lose balance, that’s a reason to see a neurologist,” says Dr. Hubbard.

In the United States, about eight million adults report having balance disorders each year. The older we get, the more likely we become to struggle with our equilibrium; nearly one-third of older adults have difficulty with balance or walking. It can be caused by a number of things, including problems with the inner ear, issue with nerves in your legs and feet and Parkinson’s disease.

Severe or sudden loss of balance, however, could indicate an emergency, especially when coupled with certain symptoms. For example, along with a serious headache, trouble speaking or numbness in the face, arm or leg, it may signal a stroke. In cases like this, head directly to the hospital. 

You have sudden and severe headaches

3 / 6 You have sudden and severe headaches

Headaches caused by stress, allergies, caffeine or hormones are fairly common, affecting nearly everyone on occasion. Migraines, which impact almost 12 percent of Americans, are severe headaches that cause nausea, sensitivity to light and even vomiting. The occasional headache is not likely cause for concern. But, if severe headaches or migraines develop suddenly, or are very different than normal, they may signal a neurological problem.

“Any significant change from the baseline is serious,” says Hubbard. “If a headache leaves you unable to balance long enough to get up off the couch and walk to the refrigerator, that lets us know there's a neurological problem." These headaches can be a sign of something as innocent as an ear infection, but when they become frequent or severe enough to interfere with everyday life, you should make an appointment to speak with your doctor.

Still, there are times you shouldn’t wait. Severe headaches accompanied by another neurological issue—vision loss, inability to speak or weakness—should be taken to the ER. These could be signs of a stroke, concussion, meningitis or a brain tumor, all of which need immediate attention. 

Your vision changes

4 / 6 Your vision changes

Gradual changes in vision can be a caused by a number of conditions related specifically to the eyes, like cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. However, not all vision problems originate with the eyes themselves; some are caused by neurological issues.

A stroke, during which blood flow to the brain is cut off, may cause blurred or double vision. Changes in eyesight can also be a symptom of a nervous system disorder like multiple sclerosis (MS), or the result of a brain tumor. In general, severe or sudden double vision, dimness or loss of sight in one or both eyes could signal a problem. Don't ignore them, and head to the emergency room.

You’re easily confused—when you weren’t before

5 / 6 You’re easily confused—when you weren’t before

It’s human nature to forget small things once in a while, like where you set down your keys. Occasional forgetfulness can be the result of medication, stress or lack of sleep.

But confusion, memory loss and trouble thinking could also signal a major health problem. “If a person manifests a tendency to be confused, that often lets us know that something's going on,” says Hubbard. For one thing, these are all signs of dementia, a group of conditions—including Alzheimer's disease—that affects thinking, social abilities and memory.

Sudden, serious disorientation may indicate delirium, as well, especially when it's coupled with drastic mood swings, changes in alertness and shifts in sleep. Delirium happens for a number of reasons, including drug and alcohol overdose, infection and severe chronic illness. And while it usually goes away after a few days, distinguishing it from dementia, delirium should be reported to a doctor as soon as possible.

More serious reasons to get medical attention? Seizures, stroke and brain tumors can result in confusion and memory loss, and should be checked by a professional without delay.  

You have trouble sleeping

6 / 6 You have trouble sleeping

Sure, sleep apnea, anxiety and a wonky bedtime schedule can hinder your ability to get a good night’s rest. However, if you’re experiencing overwhelming attacks of drowsiness, the uncontrollable sensation to move your legs or trouble sleeping in conjunction with other symptoms, see your doctor. A neurological condition may be the culprit.

Narcolepsy, for example, is a nervous system disorder that causes daytime drowsiness and sudden bouts of sleep. It may be difficult for people to stay awake for long periods of time and function well throughout the day. Despite being tired during waking hours, people with this condition have problems sleeping through the night, and are often plagued with nighttime sleep disturbances.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is another neurological condition; it disrupts sleep by causing overwhelming and irritating urges to move your legs. Symptoms of RLS often worsen when you're lying down or sitting for long periods of time. Experts don’t know exactly what causes the condition, but believe there are genetic and neurological components.

It’s possible the changes in your sleep patterns, vision, balance or headaches aren’t serious, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Your health is important, so don’t wait to see your doctor about anything that seems a bit unusual.

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