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The clinical approach 

The clinical approach
The clinical approach

Michael Donaghy

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date: 12 December 2019

This chapter describes the appropriate clinical approach to take when presented with a patient reporting a neurological symptom. Just under 10 per cent of the population consult their general practitioner about a neurological symptom each year in the United Kingdom. About 10 per cent of these are referred for a specialist opinion, usually to a neurologist. Nine conditions account for roughly 75 per cent of general neurological referrals and are diagnosed initially on purely clinical grounds, with the other 25 per cent representing the full range of other, potentially very rare, neurological disorders.

This chapter underlines the importance of a thorough and informative history to achieve successful diagnosis. Crucial facets for a good history include information on the time course of symptom development, whether symptoms are negative or positive, previous neurological history (both personal and familial), as well as other potentially contributory general medical disorders. The general neurological examination is also described, as are specific examination manoeuvres that may be added to the general neurological examination in specific clinical circumstances.

Reflexes play an important role in diagnostic neurology because they reflect the integrity of, or alterations in, the neural structures responsible for their arc. Loss of a reflex may be due to interruption of the afferent path by a lesion involving the first sensory neurone in the peripheral nerves, plexuses, spinal nerves, or dorsal roots, by damage to the central paths of the arc in the brainstem or spinal cord, by lesions of the lower motor neurone at any point between the anterior horn cells and the muscles, of the muscles themselves, or by the neural depression produced by neural shock. In clinical practice, the most useful and oft-elicited reflexes are the tendon reflexes of the limbs, the jaw jerk, the plantar response, the superficial abdominal reflexes, the pupil-light response, and in infants, the Moro reflex. The place of these particular reflexes in the routine neurological examination is outlined, and the elicitation and significance of these reflexes and of a wide variety of others which are used occasionally are described.

Examinations that allow localization lesions that are responsible for muscle weaknesses and the assessment of somatosensory abnormalities are described, as are neurological disorders that result in identifiable gait disorders. The clinical signs and examinations relevant to autonomic disorders are also discussed.

Intensive care may be required for patients critically ill either as a result of primary neurological disease, or in those in whom a neurological disorder is a component of, or secondary to, a general medical disorder. Indications for admission to neurological intensive care have been defined (Howard et al. 2003): impaired consciousness, bulbar muscle failure, severe ventilatory respiratory failure, uncontrolled seizures, severely raised intracranial pressure, some monitoring and interventional treatments, and unforeseen general medical complications. Naturally specific treatments indicated for the particular diagnosis should be instituted along with general intensive care measures.

Finally, the discussion of diagnoses of chronic or terminal conditions with patients is discussed, with particular focus on the best way to present the diagnosis to the patient.

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