Getting a diagnosis

Diagnosing someone with a neurological condition is often likened to doing a jigsaw puzzle: collecting all the pieces together and putting them in the right order. Your symptoms are clues for your doctor, which all help to create a fuller picture. The idea is to explore the possible causes of your symptoms.

Your doctor will use several factors to understand more about your condition and lead towards a diagnosis. These may include:

  • Listening to your medical history and details of your symptoms
  • A physical examination
  • Tests or investigations

Keeping a diary of your symptoms can be helpful, noting down information about what happens and when.

It is also important to mention everything, so that you can give as full a picture as possible – even if it may not seem significant to you. While your main reason for seeing your doctor might be something obvious, like severe pain, think about whether you have experienced any other symptoms, too. These could include unusual smells or tastes, altered sensations, or an absence of feeling in one part of your body.

Diagnosing neurological conditions
Neurological conditions can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms of one condition can be similar to another.

Non-neurological conditions can sometimes mimic the symptoms of neurological conditions. It may help to keep an open mind – your symptoms may seem to indicate a neurological condition, but could in fact be caused by something else.

Tests and investigations
Doctors can use different kinds of investigations to try to find out what is causing your symptoms. Depending on your particular symptoms, you may be referred for a variety of tests and investigations.

Blood tests
You may have blood tests to check many things. If you have neurological-like symptoms, your blood tests might check your Vitamin B12 and various hormone levels.

Clinical neurophysiology is an area of medicine concerned with testing the electrical functions of the brain, spinal cord and the nerves in the limbs and muscles. This is done to help in the diagnosis of a wide range of conditions affecting these parts of the body.

The 4 main types of test carried out in clinical neurophysiology departments are:

  1. EEG (electroencephalogram): a recording of the electrical activity of the brain.
  2. Evoked potentials: a recording of the electrical responses of the brain and spinal cord to stimulation of the senses (sight, hearing and touch).
  3. Nerve conduction studies: a recording of the passage of electrical signals along nerves in the limbs.
  4. EMG (electromyography): a recording of the electrical activity of muscles.

Brain and spine scans
A brain or spine scan is an investigation. Your doctor or specialist will refer you for a scan and use the results to assist them in making a diagnosis.

There are 2 main types of brain scan and spine scan: CT scans and MRI scans.
See the Brain and Spine Foundation’s Brain and spine scans fact sheet for more information.

Questions to ask
This can be a confusing time, and it can be hard to take in all the information you are given about the tests and investigations you may be undergoing. If you need information or support, you can speak to our Helpline nurses who will be able to talk you through what happens in your appointments, why you are sent for tests and what your results mean. Call free on 0808 808 1000 or email the Helpline.

Undiagnosed conditions
Sometimes, although somebody is experiencing symptoms, it takes a long time to reach a diagnosis, or a diagnosis may never be reached. See our article on undiagnosed conditions.