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Monday Medical: Neurology explained

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

From headaches and memory issues, to seizures and strokes, neurologists diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions.

Dr. Treasach (Tracy) Vargas, a neurologist at UCHealth Neurology Clinic in Steamboat Springs, gives an inside at look the field of neurology and common neurological conditions below.

A two-part system

Neurology focuses on functions and disorders of the nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord — the central nervous system — and nerves, neuromuscular junctions and muscles — the peripheral nervous system.

The system allows for communication between the brain and the rest of the body.

“The brain involves all of the functions that tell the body what to do. It covers everything from memory to starting movements to feeling and interpreting sensations. It makes up your personality and regulates your emotions,” Vargas said. “If you think, ‘I’m going to move my left hand,’ a whole system of information is transmitted from your brain through the spinal cord and out into your limb.”

When things go wrong

The list of conditions that neurologists evaluate and treat is long and includes strokes, cerebral vascular disease, epilepsy, migraines, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis (M.S.), memory disorders and dementia, traumatic brain injuries, concussions and nerve injuries.

It’s always best to diagnose neurological disorders as early as possible, but symptoms can sometimes be easy to ignore.

“People may think, ‘That’s just tingling or numb — that’s normal.’ Or they’ll say, ‘All of a sudden, the right side of my body wasn’t working really well, so I just went to sleep,’” Vargas said. “Symptoms may seem common or so vague, people don’t think it needs attention.”

Take headaches, for instance.

“Oftentimes, I’ll get patients who say they have regular headaches,” Vargas said. “But you’re not supposed to have headaches — they aren’t normal.”

In addition to regular headaches, vision changes, dizziness, issues with balance and coordination, and issues with cognition and memory may need to be evaluated by a neurologist.

“First, we want to make sure there’s not something very worrisome going on that needs intervention,” Vargas said. “And second, we want to help improve a patient’s quality of life. If you suffer from 10 to 15 debilitating migraine headaches a month, there are treatments.”

Common issues

Epilepsy, autoimmune disorders, M.S. and headaches are most likely to crop up in younger patients. Older patients, on the other hand, are more likely to be diagnosed with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., as well as stroke and sleep disorders.

Most neurological disorders have a strong genetic component.

“We always try to encourage good brain health through actions like reducing high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as things that are hard for your heart are hard for your brain,” Vargas said. “But because of the genetic component, a lot of these disorders can’t be avoided.”

Diagnosis and treatment

Neurologists are known for being very comprehensive and meticulous in their evaluations. While an in-depth physical examination is an important part of any diagnosis, telehealth visits are an option, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For patients who are high risk or very concerned about coming in to see a physician, I’m more than happy to work with them on a telehealth platform,” Vargas said.

Neurological diseases often cannot be cured, but instead must be managed. That makes it especially important that treatment plans are tailored to an individual’s needs and goals.

“Treatment becomes more of the art of medicine. We listen to each patient and figure out what’s the best plan for them forward,” Vargas said. “Once we have a diagnosis, I want to make sure patients are happy with their care plan.

“That’s why we focus on early evaluation, getting patients on the correct treatment plan and medications, and maximizing their quality of life. We want to make sure we’re giving patients the best chance of having the most enjoyable life possible.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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