Neurology and mental health conditions share many common symptoms, which can make getting a correct diagnosis difficult. If your first thought when experiencing anxiety or a panic attack is that you may be having a psychiatric episode, you're not alone – it is a common misconception.
In fact, many treatable medical diagnoses present with the same signs as psychological disorders.
Here are a few conditions that are more typical than others. These conditions share common symptoms such as mood swings, difficulty with memory, changes in body control and more.
Parkinson's Disease & Multiple Sclerosis vs. Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a psychiatric condition characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech. There is no single test available to diagnose schizophrenia. Instead, specialists review the patient's clinical symptoms, such as delusions and hallucinations, and changes in behavior over time to reach a diagnosis.
However, these symptoms are also related to several neurologic conditions, notably Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. Neurologists often rule these out with a complete medical workup, but sometimes this can get more complex. For example, people experiencing schizophrenia might also be experiencing symptoms such as lack of coordination, tremors, and stiffness, which are also signs of PD and MS.
Alzheimer's vs. Bipolar Disorder
Another condition, along with PD and MS, includes Alzheimer's, a memory disorder. Alzheimer's can present as bipolar disorder (elevation or depression of mood), depression, and schizophrenia (disorganized thoughts). Neurologists base an Alzheimer's diagnosis on the presence of behavioral symptoms such as memory loss and disorientation that has lasted over time, along with thorough testing. Most specialists recommend that anyone with memory loss have a complete physical workup to include imaging of the brain, checking the blood flow to the brain, checking the brain rhythm, and checking laboratories for treatable and reversible causes of memory loss. Obtaining neuropsychological testing (paper and pencil tests to determine objectively any dysfunction of thought) is also essential as a baseline of brain function. It is important to rule out all medical conditions that are treatable and correctable.
Early Huntington's Chorea vs. Psychosis
Huntington's chorea is a hereditary neurodegenerative disorder that causes the death of neurons in the brain. Symptoms include psychiatric disease, such as depression and psychosis, and cognitive deficits. Movement problems are also common such as jerking and shaking.
The early and pronounced behavioral symptoms in the beginning stages of Huntington's disease include a form of psychosis that can be very difficult to differentiate from schizophrenia. It's vital to have a complete evaluation to rule out other possible diagnoses.
How a Neurologist Can Help Diagnose Your Condition
When neurologists evaluate a patient, they consider both neurologic and psychiatric conditions. While these specialists are trained to consider neuropsychiatric issues when assessing patients, general practitioners may not have extensive education and knowledge in this area. This situation can make it challenging for your doctor to know when to refer you to neurology or psychiatry. By starting with a neurology department, you can have a specialist rule out any other conditions.
Why Work with a Neurologist and Mental Health Professional
When it comes to neurologic conditions that can mimic mental health conditions, a neurologist may recommend a psychiatric assessment for co-management. If the patient is struggling with depression or other mood issues – even with a neurologic condition – neurologists will likely refer them to a psychiatrist or psychologist for an evaluation and treatment plan.
In cases when a patient receives a correct diagnosis, the neurologist may still refer them to a psychiatrist for ongoing mental health support.
When to Speak with a Medical Professional
If you are experiencing neurologic symptoms that appear to be mental health issues, you should speak with your doctor about the following:
- How long have these symptoms been occurring?
- How have they affected you at work, home, or with friends?
- What changes you have noticed in how these symptoms affect your mood or daily life?
If the neurologist refers you to another doctor for further evaluation, be sure also to inform that doctor about your condition. The neurologist, psychiatrist, and other doctors involved in your care should work as a team to provide the best treatment and outcomes for you and your family.
For any questions or to schedule a consultation, feel free to contact our practice at Neurology Office here.
A message from Dr. Kandel:
"As I often explain to my patients, the more information we have, the more accurate the diagnosis can be. And the more accurate the diagnosis, the quicker the patient can be treated…and started on the path to improved health!"
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