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When people hear the word neurosurgery, the first thought that pops into their head is brain surgery. Indeed, neurosurgeons perform brain surgery, however they are also involved in operating on other parts of the nervous system. The brain is an integral and marvelous part of a human's personality and being.

Neurosurgeons are more than just brain surgeons. They are well trained to help patients with head and spine trauma, cerebrovascular disorders, such as aneurysms of the brain, and clogged arteries in the neck that can lead to stroke, chronic low back pain, birth defects, brain and spinal tumors, and abnormalities of the nerves. Disorders of the brain, spine and nerves commonly treated by neurosurgeons include: carotid artery disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, cervical spine disorders, epilepsy, head injuries, herniated disks, lumbar stenosis, spina bifida, and tumors.

Neurosurgeons use sophisticated medical instruments such as CAT scans, MRIs and EEGs to diagnose the neurological problem a patient is having. A CAT scan (computerized axial tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) can provide detailed anatomic pictures of the brain, spinal structures and the blood vessels. Neurosurgeons sometimes perform a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to obtain the cerebrospinal fluid for analysis. Some neurosurgeons interpret EEG (electroencephalography) used in the evaluation of seizure disorders. Others perform the EMG/NCV (electromyography/nerve conduction velocity testing) which is used to diagnose nerve and muscle problems.

Neurosurgeons also perform biopsies and cerebral angiograms. In a biopsy, the neurosurgeon extracts a small amount of tissue from a patient's brain and sends the tissue to a neuropathologist for examination and diagnosis. They perform various operations in hospital operating rooms, with a group of nurses, a resident doctor, an anesthetist and even a technologist.

Neurosurgeons do not have an easy job, that is for sure! They are under constant scrutiny and stress as they are dealing with people's brains. Their work must be carried off perfect without any mistakes. Therefore, they must have good manual dexterity and stamina.
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  Interests and Skills  
Neurosurgeons are interested in helping people, first and foremost. They have the intellectual ability required to successfully complete the required academic training and to pursue a course of lifelong learning and since many of the procedures take hours to complete, a neurosurgeon must have mental and physical stamina. The stress can be personal and intense. They have excellent communication skills and can get along with people well and instill confidence. They will need emotional strength and maturity, and passion, empathy and energy.

Neurosurgeons should enjoy finding solutions to problems, dealing with people, and directing the work of others. They must also be proficient in neurological medicine -- they must have and apply this knowledge to diagnose illnesses of the nervous system. Also, ethics is a strong point for these types of people because they have to do what is right for their patients with their best interests in mind.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Treat and operate on patients with diseases of the brain and central nervous system
  • Examine patients for symptoms indicative of neurological disorders, using medical instruments and equipment
  • Perform CAT scans, MRIs and other specialized tests to find tumors
  • Perform biopsies and spinal taps to extract tissue and fluids to be examined
  • Perform brain surgery, spinal surgery, transplants and other forms of serious operation
  • Prescribe medications and recommend dietary and physical activity programs for a post-operative recovery
  • Neurosurgeons spend their time seeing patients, conducting surgery, performing administrative work and conducting research. They generally work long hours, about 60 to 80 per week. All surgery is performed in hospital operating rooms and can be extremely lengthy procedures. Spinal operations take up to three hours, and some brain surgeries go on for up to 10 hours! Many neurosurgeons are always on call in case of an emergency.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Neurosurgeons work in hospitals, intensive care units, private clinics, universities and other research offices.

  Long Term Career Potential  
After the many years of school, training and residency that neurosurgeons must go through, chances are by the time they become professional surgeons, they will work in the field for a long time. Becoming a neurosurgeon is like getting a huge promotion to begin with. However, they can always learn new skills, add more patients, or change jobs. They may work as directors of research, hospital administrators, medical school administrators, and teachers in medical schools and residency programs. They may manage clinics or do research for pharmaceutical companies. They may also write and publish in scientific and medical journals or take jobs in medical public relations.

  Educational Paths  
Becoming a neurosurgeon requires a long educational road, so be prepared for a lifelong learning experience. All neurosurgeons start with a Bachelor of Science degree, however some Bachelor of Arts graduates may be accepted into medical school programs. While in high school, take math and science classes. Also, not all medical schools require a bachelor's degree, so with good marks, some students can get accepted after two years of undergraduate studies. Check with the school for their requirements before applying.

The next step is medical school, which usually takes four years. Graduation from an approved medical school will result in the title Medical Doctor (MD). A one- to two-year internship and five to seven years of specialized residency training are required after graduation from medical school. While in the program, neurosurgical residents are trained in all aspects of neurosurgery, including cerebrovascular, pediatrics, spine, trauma and tumor. The resident program is long and difficult, due to the extreme complexity of the nervous system and the advanced techniques used in neurosurgical operations.

Finally, before entering medical school, it is a good idea to volunteer in a hospital, nursing home or community center. This will give you valuable experience in dealing with people who need help and what it is like to work as a doctor.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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