Neurological examination

Part of Medical History.

A neurological evaluation is a comprehensive assessment conducted by a healthcare professional specializing in neurology to examine the function of the nervous system. This evaluation is crucial for diagnosing neurological conditions, monitoring disease progression, and determining appropriate treatment plans. Here are key components typically involved in a neurological evaluation:

1. Patient History: The neurologist gathers information about the patient's medical history, including details about symptoms, their onset, duration, and any triggering factors. Family history of neurological conditions and other relevant medical information. 2. Physical Examination: Cranial Nerves Examination: Assessing the function of the twelve cranial nerves, which control various sensory and motor functions in the head and neck. Motor Function Examination: Evaluating strength, coordination, and muscle tone. Reflex Testing: Checking reflexes, such as the knee jerk reflex. Sensory Examination: Assessing the patient's ability to feel and respond to different sensations. 3. Mental Status Examination: Cognitive Function: Evaluating memory, attention, language, and problem-solving skills. Mood and Behavior: Assessing emotional and behavioral aspects, looking for signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. 4. Coordination and Balance Assessment: Testing the patient's ability to perform coordinated movements and maintain balance. Assessing gait (walking) and coordination of fine motor skills. 5. Specialized Tests: Electroencephalogram (EEG): Measures electrical activity in the brain and helps diagnose conditions such as epilepsy. Electromyography (EMG) and Nerve Conduction Studies: Evaluates the function of muscles and nerves. Imaging Studies: MRI or CT scans may be ordered to visualize the structure of the brain and detect abnormalities. 6. Neurological Examination for Specific Symptoms: Focused examinations may be conducted for specific symptoms such as headaches, seizures, vision problems, or sensory disturbances. 7. Diagnostic Procedures: Lumbar puncture (spinal tap), if needed, to analyze cerebrospinal fluid. Blood tests to check for markers of certain neurological conditions. 8. Neuropsychological Testing: In-depth assessments of cognitive function and behavior, often used in cases of suspected cognitive impairment or neurodegenerative diseases. 9. Communication Assessment: In cases of speech or language disorders, evaluation of communication skills may be included. 10. Follow-Up and Monitoring: Depending on the findings, a plan for further testing, treatment, or ongoing monitoring may be recommended. A neurological evaluation is tailored to the individual patient's symptoms and concerns. It helps neurologists make accurate diagnoses, develop treatment plans, and provide appropriate care for a wide range of neurological conditions. The findings from the evaluation guide healthcare professionals in understanding the nature of the neurological issue and planning the most suitable interventions.

Level of consciousness/mental status

a) Glasgow coma scale for a quantitating level of consciousness in a poorly responsive patient

b) Check orientation in a patient able to communicate

(assesses motor tracts from motor cortex through spinal cord)

a) if patient is cooperative: check motor strength in all 4 extremities

b) if uncooperative: check for appropriate movement of all 4 extremities to noxious stimulus

(differentiate voluntary movement from posturing or stereotypical spinal cord reflex). This also assesses sensation in an unresponsive patient

c) if any doubt about integrity of spinal cord: also check “resting” tone of anal sphincter on rectal exam, evaluate voluntary sphincter contraction if patient can cooperate, check anal wink with pinprick, and assess bulbocavernosus reflex

4. sensory exam

a) cooperative patient:

● checkpinprickontrunkandinall4extremities,touchonmajordermatomes(C4,C6,C7, C8, T4, T6, T10, L2, L4, L5, S1, sacrococcygeal) ● check posterior column function: joint position sense of LEs


Assessment of sensory neuron and motor responses, especially reflexes, to determine whether the nervous system is impaired. This typically includes a physical examination and a review of the patient's medical history, but not deeper investigation such as neuroimaging. It can be used both as a screening tool and as an investigative tool, the former of which when examining the patient when there is no expected neurological deficit and the latter of which when examining a patient where you do expect to find abnormalities.

If a problem is found either in an investigative or screening process then further tests can be carried out to focus on a particular aspect of the nervous system (such as lumbar punctures and blood tests).

In general, a neurological examination is focused on finding out whether there are lesions in the central and peripheral nervous systems or there is another diffuse process that is troubling the patient.[2] Once the patient has been thoroughly tested, it is then the role of the physician to determine whether these findings combine to form a recognizable medical syndrome or neurological disorder such as Parkinson's disease or motor neurone disease.

Finally, it is the role of the physician to find the etiological reasons for why such a problem has occurred, for example finding whether the problem is due to inflammation or is congenital.

A neurological examination is indicated whenever a physician suspects that a patient may have a neurological disorder. Any new symptom of any neurological order may be an indication for performing a neurological examination.


Handedness is important in establishing the area of the brain important for language (as almost all right-handed people have a left hemisphere, which is responsible for language). As patients answer questions, it is important to gain an idea of the complaint thoroughly and understand its time course. Understanding the patient's neurological state at the time of questioning is important, and an idea of how competent the patient is with various tasks and his/her level of impairment in carrying out these tasks should be obtained. The interval of a complaint is important as it can help aid the diagnosis. For example, vascular disorders (such as strokes) occur very frequently over minutes or hours, whereas chronic disorders (such as Alzheimer's disease) occur over a matter of years.

Carrying out a 'general' examination is just as important as the neurological exam, as it may lead to clues to the etiology of the complaint. This is shown by cases of cerebral metastases where the initial complaint was of a mass in the breast.

List of tests Specific tests in a neurological examination include:

Category Tests Example of writeup Mental status examination The assessment of consciousness, often using the Glasgow Coma Scale (EMV) Mental status examination, often including the abbreviated mental test score (AMTS) or mini mental state examination (MMSE) Global assessment of higher functions Intracranial pressure is roughly estimated by fundoscopy; this also enables assessment for microvascular disease. “A&O x 3, short and long-term memory intact” Cranial nerve examination Cranial nerves (I-XII): sense of smell (I), visual fields and acuity (II), eye movements (III, IV, VI) and pupils (III, sympathetic and parasympathetic), sensory function of face (V), strength of facial (VII) and shoulder girdle muscles (XI), hearing (VII, VIII), taste (VII, IX, X), pharyngeal movement and reflex (IX, X), tongue movements (XII). These are tested by their individual purposes (e.g. the visual acuity can be tested by a Snellen chart). “CNII-XII grossly intact” Motor system Muscle strength, often graded on the MRC scale 0 to 5[4] (i.e., 0 = Complete Paralysis to 5 = Normal Power). grades 4−, 4 and 4+ maybe used to indicate movement against slight, moderate and strong resistance respectively. Muscle tone and signs of rigidity. Examination of posture Decerebrate Decorticate Hemiparetic Resting tremors Abnormal movements Seizure Fasciculations Tone Spasticity Pronator drift Rigidity Cogwheeling (abnormal tone suggestive of Parkinson's disease) Gegenhalten – is resistance to passive change, where the strength of antagonist muscles increases with increasing examiner force. More common in dementia. “strength 5/5 throughout, tone WNL” Deep tendon reflexes Reflexes: masseter, biceps and triceps tendon, knee tendon, ankle jerk and plantar (i.e., Babinski sign). Globally, brisk reflexes suggest an abnormality of the UMN or pyramidal tract, while decreased reflexes suggest abnormality in the anterior horn, LMN, nerve or motor end plate. A reflex hammer is used for this testing. “2+ symmetric, downgoing plantar reflex” Sensation Sensory system testing involves provoking sensations of fine touch, pain and temperature. Fine touch can be evaluated with a monofilament test, touching various dermatomes with a nylon monofilament to detect any subjective absence of touch perception.

Sensory Light touch Pain Temperature Vibration Position sense Graphesthesia Stereognosis, and Two-point discrimination (for discriminative sense) Extinction Romberg test – 2 out of the following 3 must be intact to maintain balance: i. vision ii. vestibulocochlear system iii. epicritic sensation “intact to sharp and dull throughout” Cerebellum Cerebellar testing Dysmetria Finger-to-nose test Ankle-over-tibia test Dysdiadochokinesis Rapid pronation-supination Ataxia Assessment of gait Nystagmus Intention tremor Staccato speech “intact finger-to-nose, gait WNL” Interpretation[edit] The results of the examination are taken together to anatomically identify the lesion. This may be diffuse (e.g., neuromuscular diseases, encephalopathy) or highly specific (e.g., abnormal sensation in one dermatome due to compression of a specific spinal nerve by a tumor deposit).

General principles

Looking for side to side symmetry: one side of the body serves as a control for the other. Determining if there is focal asymmetry. Determining whether the process involves the peripheral nervous system (PNS), central nervous system (CNS), or both. Considering if the finding (or findings) can be explained by a single lesion or whether it requires a multifocal process. Establishing the lesion's location. If the process involves the CNS, clarifying if it is cortical, subcortical, or multifocal. If subcortical, clarifying whether it is white matter, basal ganglia, brainstem, or spinal cord. If the process involves the PNS then determining whether it localizes to the nerve root, plexus, peripheral nerve, neuromuscular junction, muscle or whether it is multifocal. A differential diagnosis may then be constructed that takes into account the patient's background (e.g., previous cancer, autoimmune diathesis) and present findings to include the most likely causes. Examinations are aimed at ruling out the most clinically significant causes (even if relatively rare, e.g., brain tumor in a patient with subtle word-finding abnormalities but no increased intracranial pressure) and ruling in the most likely causes.

References Jump up ^ Nicholl DJ, Appleton JP (May 29, 2014). “Clinical neurology: why this still matters in the 21st century”. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatr. Online first. doi:10.1136/jnnp-2013-306881. PMID 24879832.

Jump up ^ Oommen, Kalarickal. “Neurological History and Physical Examination”. Retrieved 2008-04-22. Jump up ^ Medical Research Council (1976). Medical Research Council scale. Aids to examination of the peripheral nervous system. Memorandum no. 45. Jump up ^ Murray ED, Price BH. “The Neurological Examination.” In: Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry, First Edition. Stern TA, Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, Rauch S, Biederman J. (eds.) Philadelphia: Mosby/Elsevier. April 25, 2008. ISBN 0323047432. ISBN 978-0323047432

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