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The Neurological Exam Explained

The Neurological Exam Explained

We have all had a thorough once-over by a neurologist, and chances are you see one at least once a year for a checkup and exam. Have you ever obediently walked around on your tippy toes, or moved your finger from your nose to your doctor’s finger over and over wondering what it is they are looking for, or secretly hoping that this isn’t just a trick to make you look ridiculous? All these tests and hoops that your doctors make you go through give them a good look at how the nervous system is working, but people often ask me what exactly we learn from doing these test.  I wanted to take the time today to elaborate a little bit more on each aspect of the exam so you can understand its purpose a little bit better.

Testing the cranial nerves

Cranial nerves originate in the brain and control various movements and sensations of the face and neck. There are a total of 12 cranial nerves, and MS can affect them in a variety of ways. Neurologists will sometimes test them one by one, or focus on the nerves that are most pertinent to a specific complaint.

Below is a list of each nerve, what it controls, and how we test it:

1. Olfactory Nerve- this controls our sense of smell, we typically do not test this nerve because people can report a change in smell accurately.

2. Optic Nerve- this controls vision, color perception, and visual fields. The optic nerve is commonly damaged by MS, and there are a lot of different ways to test it. Eye charts help detect changes in vision such as blurred or double vision. In people who have MS sometimes colors are less vivid in one eye, and we can test this by holding up a red square and seeing if it looks like the same shade of red in both eyes. To test peripheral vision we hold our hands way out to the sides of the person’s face and ask them to tell us how many fingers we are holding up, or if they can see which fingers are moving. Finally, we turn off the lights in the room and look at the back of the eye with a bright light.

3. Oculomotor Nerve- this nerve constricts the pupils, opens the eyelids, and controls the movement of the eye (extraocular movements). We test this by shining a light in the eyes to see if the pupils constrict properly, and by having the person follow our finger as we move it up, down, and side to side.

4. Trochlear Nerve- this nerve also moves the eye and is specifically responsible for moving the eye down and inwards. This is also tested by having the person follow our finger with their eyes.

5. Trigeminal Nerve- this nerve moves the jaw, and processes sensory information from the face. Facial pain, called trigeminal neuralgia, is a common MS symptom. To test this nerve we have the person clench the jaw and look to see if it is symmetrical. We can also test sensation by touching each side of the face to see if sensation is the same on each side.

6. Abducens Nerve- this is responsible for moving the eyes to the side (away from the nose). Again, we test this by having people follow our fingers with their eyes.

7. Facial Nerve- this nerve controls the movement of the face and our sense of taste. To test it we have people make facial expressions like smiling, squeezing their eyes shut, puffing their cheeks, and raising their eyebrows to see if both sides of the face are symmetrical.

8. Acoustic/Vestibulocochlear Nerve- this nerve is responsible for hearing and for balance. To test this nerve we can either test the hearing by seeing if the person can hear a soft sound such as whispering in each ear, or by using a tuning fork. A tuning fork is a metal fork-like instrument. When it is struck it produces audible vibrations, and we can see if one ear hears the vibrations better then the other ear. These are called the Weber and Rinne tests.

9. Glossopharyngeal Nerve- this nerve also plays a role in our sense of taste, the movement of the soft palate, and it also controls the gag reflex. It is tested by watching the palate rise with the person’s mouth open. Luckily we don’t force you to gag to test this one!

10. Vagus Nerve- movement of the palate and throat. To assess this nerve we have the person say “ahhh” and watch the movement of the uvula to ensure that it is in the middle, and not deviated to the side.

11. Spinal Accessory Nerve- this nerve moves the neck muscles. To test its function we have the person move their head from side to side, and shrug their shoulders against resistance (meaning we place our hands on the face and shoulders, and the person has to overcome the resistance of our hand to complete the motion).

12. Hypoglossal Nerve- this nerve controls the movement of the tongue. To test it we have the person stick out their tongue and look to see if it is in the middle. We also look to see if there are any signs of muscle weakness in the tongue. Most people love the opportunity to stick their tongue out at their doctor!

Testing the brain and the spinal cord

There are several ways that we test the brain and spinal cord. These tests provide us with a lot of information about how the nervous system is functioning overall, and whether there are any disruptions in communication.

Walking: the way a person walks (or their gait) tells us a lot about how well the nervous system is working. We look for muscle weakness, foot drop, imbalance, and speed. We will also have a person walk on their toes, heels, and in a straight line (heel to toe) to check their balance and the strength of different muscle groups.

Reflexes: these are involuntary movements controlled by the spinal cord. Absent, unequal, or weak reflexes indicate a lesion on the spinal cord. Exaggerated reflexes or clonus (rhythmic muscle movements/oscillations) can also be a result of spinal cord lesions.

Balance: one of the most common ways of assessing balance is to have the person stand up straight and close their eyes. If they lose their balance with their eyes closed this is usually a sign of a spinal cord lesion.

Sensation: sensory nerves travel from the spinal cord to the brain and can be tested by seeing if a person can tell the difference between a sharp and dull, cold and hot, and if they can feel vibration.

Coordination: to test coordination we check to see how well a person can do fine movements, such as tapping their fingers together, rapidly moving their hand, and by moving their finger back and forth from their nose to the doctor’s finger. Another way to assess coordination is to have the person run the heel of their right foot up and down their left shin, and vice versa. These coordination tests tell us how well a part of the brain called the cerebellum is functioning.

Strength: we will have the person move their arms and legs against resistance to see how strong they are, and if both sides of the body are equally strong. To do this we have the person push and pull our hands with their arms and legs, and squeeze our fingers.

Range of Motion: If the person has spasticity of the muscles it will limit how much movement they have in their joints. Moving the joints of the legs and arms helps us to determine how severe muscle spasticity is.

I hope this helps you understand what it is your doctor is looking for every time you go in for your checkups! Have you ever had any other exam done that left you wondering “what on earth are they looking for”? Let me know in the comments below!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • cjdegradi
    2 years ago

    Since 2010 when I woke up blind in my left eye, several neurologists from Chicago’s University of Chicago, Northwestern, Loyola, to California Hospitals University and Non, I have not had one Neurologist perform an exam on me like you just described Stephanie. Not one! I have had countless exams, MRI’s, spinal taps, blood tests, eye exams, and every other poke and prod but NEVER have I gone and had an exam like you just discussed. I am beside myself wondering who or what has been going on with my exams? No wonder I am not getting any better…
    Question: Is there a way to qualify a neurologist as an MS specialist before going and to find out what their exam procedures?

    I can’t believe what I just read in your article Stephanie and to find out that these procedures should have been done or at least some of them. I am in shock really!

  • cynthia
    4 years ago

    wow thank you for telling why i think i look like and idiot at the doctors office. that will help me get through it better. my neurologist always has students to do the test first then tell him their findings. last time i was there the student did not do some of the normal test that you described. should i tell the student that they missed a couple or is this rude? i am kind of getting use to what is going on. i have only been diagnosis for 7 years. so i do not want the students to think that i know more then them.

  • Tess
    4 years ago

    I am experiencing severe jaw pain and jaw muscle spasms when I eat and chew. Am I alone with this? It’s not TMJ.

  • Betty
    4 years ago

    Miami neurologist: read my questions. No DMT’S. Not bad enough. Bye. Not accessible by phone. Would not respond to request by Houston neurologist for records.
    Houston neurologist: reads my notes and makes comments, listens to heart, lungs, and gut, bp, complete neurological and strength testing, blood work at every visit. Every 3 months or earlier as needed. Reviews medications every visit and makes adjustments as necessary. Explains tests results. Compares MRI scan with previous MRI picture by picture explaining changes and implications.Communicates with other physicians involved in my care. Patient centered care. Encourages patients to be proactive. Accessible 24/7.

    Both neurologists specialize in MS.

  • MN Momma
    5 years ago

    This is fantastic! One question I have is why does my Dr run a sharp (at least it feels sharp) object up the bottom of my foot? He goes from above the heel towards the base of my toes. This is, to me, the worst of the testing (besides the MRI’s).

  • Peter
    5 years ago

    Thanks for the insight. I have a few comments and questions, after some background.

    I recently saw a number of different neurologists in search of one who would continue to prescribe me Tysabri. They all performed some of those tests on me, and two of them refused to continue prescribing me Tysabri. As always I passed the tests with flying colors.

    Their point of view was that since I passed these tests, my MS was relatively benign and they weren’t willing to continue to put me at risk for PML (statistically my risk is 117) when in their opinion my MS is benign. I finally went to a well known expert in the field who was comfortable continuing me on Tysabri and we discussed Rituximab as a possible option down the road.

    So my question is, given the gazillion things that the central nervous system is responsible for, are the above tests (or in my case, three or four of those), really adequate to evaluate MS’s impact on the patient?

    And my comment is that I believe by far the largest impact MS has is on cognition and emotion, and that due to the subjective nature of identifying these symptoms, neurologists largely ignore them when attempting to diagnosis symptoms. What do you think?

  • Stephanie Buxhoeveden, RN, MSCN author
    5 years ago

    Hello Peter,

    Thank you for the thoughtful questions! In neurology we get a ton of information from the “clinical picture”, which is the information we glean from the simple tests above. That in combination with MRI images have actually been shown to adequately assess disease progression, as well as medication effectiveness. We are fortunate to have access to a lot of cutting edge medical technology, but the hands on exam is still a critical component of care for every condition, including MS. That being said, I’m hopeful that we will have even more advanced MRI technology in the near future that can help us see what is going on in the brain better.

    My MS center assesses cognition, screens for depression, and asks every patient to record how much of an impact each of their symptoms is having on their everyday life (we use the NARCOMS questionnaire) at every visit. I believe this is critical, and that all neurologists should be doing this, as you suggested.

    I hope that answered your questions!

  • Adriann
    5 years ago

    Indeed , a very nice explanation to the examination and all the different nerves that are rated .. A patient then has an opportunity to “work on” those areas ..

    A more in-depth look as time goes on would be welcome as well since many of us do not get this same treatment by so called MS Doctors ..

    Thank you for posting ..

  • Lisa
    5 years ago

    Thank you so much! This was very informative. I love the explanations of the different nerves, and what they control…. I am turning 34 this month, and was diagnosed at 13 years old

  • CatMom
    5 years ago

    Thank you, Stephanie, for the explanation of all these tests. I always wondered what they were for but never asked, or askedand promply forgot.

  • fedupandconfused
    5 years ago

    Thanks Stephanie this is really helpful. Does this mean people with MS should “fail” these tests if they have MS? Does it show differently depending on whether MS legions are specific on the brain or spinal cord?

  • Stephanie Buxhoeveden, RN, MSCN author
    5 years ago

    Great questions! It is going to vary significantly from person to person depending on where your lesions are. It can also vary from visit to visit. For example during a relapse I typically loose the reflexes in my legs, but 6 months-1 year later they return again.

  • Kim Dolce moderator
    5 years ago

    Stephanie, this is fabulous 🙂 I’ll be referencing this article a lot. Thanks so much for providing a clear explanation for the neurologic exam!


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