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Nervous System Disorders Signs and Symptoms: Medical Terminology

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There are various signs and symptoms of nervous system disorders. There is specific medical terminology that applies to them. Knowledge of it promotes health literacy. It can aid in recognizing the need for professional evaluation and treatment. Prompt actions resulting from a recognized need can prevent undesirable consequences and promote better health care outcomes. 

Medical Terminology


Allodynia – It is pain experienced from stimulation of normal skin that would not normally cause pain.  

Aphasia – It is complete dysphasia or the total loss of ability to communicate through spoken, written, or sign language, or to understand spoken, written, or sign language due to injury or disease of the brain.  The dominant hemisphere of the brain must be involved. 

Expressive aphasia is the inability to produce speech.

Receptive aphasia is the inability to understand language.   

Each type of deficit correlates with damage to a specific area of the brain.  Damage to Broca’s area innervous system disorders the lower frontal lobe of the dominant hemisphere causes problems with speech production.  Thus, Broca’s aphasia is another term for expressive aphasia.  Damage to Wernicke’s area in the back portion of the temporal lobe of the dominant   hemisphere causes problems understanding language.  Hence, Wernicke’s aphasia is an alternate term for receptive aphasia.  

Ataxia – Is the poor coordination of muscle movement.  It can be apparent in the upper and/or lower limbs.  If it involves the lower limbs it can result in an ataxic gait.  An ataxic gait is staggering while walking with a tendency to space the feet wide apart.  The unsteadiness becomes worse with attempts to walk with the feet spaced closer together.  Various conditions can cause a problem with balance. But injury or disease of the midline portion of the cerebellum is the main cause of a classic ataxic gait.  

Asterixis – It is a flapping tremor of the hands. It is observable with the hands flexed back and the arms outstretched. It is most commonly a sign of hepatic encephalopathy.

AuraIt is a sensation(s) which precedes a neurological event such as a seizure or migraine headache.  Examples are seeing flashing lights prior to the onset of a migraine headache or a feeling of fear right before a seizure.  

Babinski reflex – It is upward movement of the big toe and/or fanning out of the toes which occurs with linear stroking of the sole of the foot.  It is a normal reflex and children up to 2 years of age, but a sign of upper motor neuron disease in adults. Stroke, brain tumor and multiple sclerosis are common causes of a positive reflex.  

Balance disorder – It is a condition that causes one to feel unsteady or not be able to achieve a steady posture.  It might be apparent while bearing weight or while sitting. 

Cephalgia – Headache. 

Cephalic – Pertaining to the head or cranium.   

Coma – Is a state of unconsciousness and unresponsiveness in which there is no voluntary movement or behavior.  

Cranial – Pertaining to the head or cranium.

Dizziness – It is a feeling as if being on the verge of falling. It requires specificity in terms of whether the sensation is lightheadedness, vertigo, or a disturbance of equilibrium.  

Diplopia – Double vision.  

Disorientation – It is a state of confusion in which there is the loss of awareness of identity, location, or time.  

Dysarthria – Is abnormal speech sound resulting from a disturbance in the function of speech muscle(s).  Various conditions can cause it.  They include brain injury, stroke, cerebral palsy, Lou Gehrig’s disease and a number of other nervous system diseases.  The abnormal sound includes slurred speech, hoarseness, abnormally slow speech, abnormally soft or whispering speech, and nasal speech.  There is oftentimes limited tongue, lip and jaw movement associated with the abnormal sound.  

Dysequilibrium (Disequilibrium) – Is a disturbance in one’s sense of balance; a sense of unsteadiness on one’s feet.

Dysphasia – Is the partial or total loss of ability to communicate through speech, writing, or sign language, or to understand spoken or written language due to injury or disease of the brain.  It differs from aphasia in degree, in that the loss can be partial. As with aphasia, the dominant hemisphere of the brain must be involved.   

Expressive dysphasia is difficulty with speech production. 

Receptive dysphasia is difficulty understanding language.  Individuals with it might display normal grammar syntax and intonation, but the content of their language does not make any sense.  They oftentimes insert wrong words or nonexistent words into their speech. They might string normal words together randomly.  

Gait – The manner or style in which one walks.  

Hemianopsia – Loss of vision in one half of the visual field in one or both eyes. 

Bitemporal hemianopsia is the loss of vision in the outer half of both eyes.  It is a result of a lesion of the optic chiasm.  

Homonymous hemianopsia is loss of vision in both eyes affecting either the right or left field. It is loss of the inside field of one eye and the outside field of the other eye. It is the result of disease or damage to the side of the brain opposite the side of the field loss.  The lesion is behind the optic chiasm.  

Hemiparesis – Partial paralysis of one side of the body.

Hemiplegia – Paralysis of one side of the body.  

Hyperalgia – It is the increased sensation to painful stimuli.          

Internuclear ophthalmoplegia – Is a disorder of joint movement of the eyes during lateral gaze. The affected eye adducts (turns in) minimally if at all. The contralateral eye is able to fully abduct (turn outward), but often with horizontal nystagmus. It can sometimes cause double vision during lateral gaze away from the affected eye. The source of the problem is a lesion in the medial longitudinal fasciculus of the brain stem on the same side as the affected eye. There are a number of causes including injury and stroke.  Multiple sclerosis is the most common cause in young individuals. The meaning of the two words summarizes the definition of the term. Ophthalmoplegia means paralysis or weakness of one or more of the muscles that control eye movement. Internuclear means between nerve cell groups (nuclei) in the brain. In this case the reference is to the area in the brain between the nerve cell groups that control inward and outward eye movement. This is one of the few central nervous system signs that almost pinpoints the location of a lesion.     

Lhermitte’s sign (Lhermitte sign) – Is an electrical shock-like sensation extending down the spine into the upper and lower limbs. A person bending the head forward and/or a doctor tapping on the back of the neck of a person in that position often triggers it. It is often a sign of MS but some other neurological diseases can also cause it. 

Lightheadedness – Is a feeling as if one is going to faint.   

Nystagmus – It is abnormal oscillating movements of the eyeballs.  The movements can be horizontal, vertical, or rotatory.

Paraparesis – It is partial paralysis of both lower extremities. 

Paraplegia – It is paralysis of the lower extremities and generally the lower trunk.  It is oftentimes the result of injury to the spinal cord but there are other nervous system related causes. 

Paresis – It is incomplete or partial paralysis. 

Paresthesia – It is an abnormal skin sensation described as tingling, burning or like pinpricks.

Plegia – It is a suffix signifying paralysis or loss of voluntary movement of a muscle or muscle group.

Quadrantanopia – It is visual loss or blindness in a quarter of the visual field of an eye.

Quadriparesis – It is partial paralysis of both upper and lower extremities.  

Sciatica – It is pain resulting from pressure on one or more of the nerve roots that forms the sciatic nerve.  The classic symptom is pain in the lower back shooting into the left or right buttock and back portion of the corresponding lower limb, sometimes as far down as into the toes.  Prolonged sitting or standing, sneezing, coughing and any type of strenuous activity might increase the pain.  There might also be some weakness in the involved lower limb. 

Seizure – It is an individual episode of epilepsy.  It consists of bursts of electrical activity in the brain with accompanying change in mental status and/or involuntary muscle movement.  Depending on the type of seizure there might also be other signs and symptoms.  They include a change in vision, behavior, emotions, or memory, alteration of the sense of smell, and disturbances in bladder or bowel control.  A convulsion is a form of seizure with muscle contractions. 

Syncope – It is transient loss of consciousness with full recovery, usually within minutes. It is synonymous with fainting. 

Tic – It is sudden, rapid, repetitive, involuntary movements or making of vocal sounds. Sufferers can suppress the behavior but for only limited periods of time in that it is irresistible.

Tinnitus – It is noise in the ears.  It might be ringing, hissing, whistling, rushing, etc.

Tremor – It is involuntary trembling or quivering of a portion or portions of the body.

Vertigo – It is the illusion that one’s surroundings are moving. Most commonly, it is a sensation of spinning. But it can be swaying or tilting. It is important to not confuse it with lightheadedness.

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