Few medical specialties are as demanding or rewarding as brain surgery. Doctors who pursue this path perform operations on the human nervous system. Becoming a brain surgeon requires many years of education and training.

Operations range from tumor removal and organ transplantation to minor nerve repairs and elective surgery. The job is stressful and can entail long hours. Rewards come in a high salary and the satisfaction of helping people suffering from serious disorders.

Neurosurgeon Job Description

Brain surgeons are more accurately called neurosurgeons, as their specialty is not limited to the brain. They examine, make diagnoses, and operate on the central, peripheral, and automomous nervous systems. Neurosurgeons treat disorders and diseases of the brain, head, and spinal cord; as well as associated nerves, muscles, and blood vessels. They may specialize in cancer, pediatric neurosurgery, or treatment of the spine, vascular system, or nerves.

There are many possible causes of a patient’s symptoms. Among them are cancer, stroke, mental illness, chronic pain, injuries, epilepsy, spinal trauma, cognitive and behavioral disorders, infections, movement disorders, sleep problems, cerebral palsy, encephalitis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Huntington’s disease. Spine disorders include a degenerative disease and scoliosis.

To determine the cause of the problem, a neurosurgeon examines the nerves in the head and the neck, and measures the patient’s muscular coordination and reflexes. Impaired language skills also can be a sign of illness. Diagnostic methods include CT scans, MRIs, spinal taps, SPECT tests, PET scans, lumbar punctures, electroencephalography, electromyography, and nerve-conduction velocity tests.

Neurosurgeons generally work in examinating and operating rooms at hospitals. Most also run private practices, either alone or with other doctors. Some provide their services under university practice plans. Neurosurgeons are in great demand, especially in rural areas. They are among the best-paid doctors, reportedly earning a median annual salary of nearly $530,000 in 2013.

The neurosurgeon job description includes:
  • Study patients’ medical histories and the results of examimations by other doctors;
  • Examine and interview patients, learning their complaints and symptoms;
  • Order and analyze diagnostic tests and procedures;
  • Make diagnoses based on the results of examinations and tests;
  • Discuss with patients and their families the benefits and risks of treatment options;
  • Prescribe medication, recommend nonsurgical treatments, and refer patients to other medical specialists;
  • When surgery is needed, determine the proper procedure;
  • Schedule the operation, in conjunction with nurses, anesthesiologists, assistants, and specialists;
  • Coordinate staff, plan the procedure, and order medical instruments and other supplies;
  • Perform operations on the nervous system, using either a micoscope in microsurgery or a scalpel in a more invasive procedure;
  • Meet with patients and family members to provide postoperative recommendations, nutritional suggestions, and other advice;
  • Create and maintain patient records;
  • Supervise medical technicians and administrative staff;
  • Provide training for students and staff; and
  • Receive continuing education, read medical journals, and attend conferences.

Neurosurgeon Prerequisites

Neurosurgeons, because of the high stakes involved, need extremely good eye-hand coordination and steady nerves. Patients’ lives are literally in their hands. This reality can cause stress and anxiety, which a neurosurgeon must learn to handle.

Possessing the necessary expertise and ability in the operating room is just part of the challenge. This job also involves dealing with patients and family members, who may be in fragile emotional states because of the situation they face. Those suffering from disorders of the brain may have trouble expressing themselves, so patience and understanding are required. Communication and other people skills are needed in working with medical associates, as well. A brain surgeon should exude competence, confidence, and reassurance.

Neurosurgeons may be called upon at any time of day or night. Some work 60 hours or more per week. The pressure is unrelenting, as these doctors constantly encounter life-or-death situations. Because brain surgeons are involved in multiple cases at any given time, they must be organized and profoundly detail-oriented.

How to Become a Neurosurgeon

The first step to becoming any type of medical doctor is to receive a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. A major in biology, chemistry, or physics is recommended. In addition to taking a variety of science classes, students should study math.

The next level of required education, medical school, takes another four years. Pre-med students take classes in biology, physics, chemistry, math, English, humanities, and social sciences. Some volunteer at nearby clinics or hospitals to gain practical experience.

Medical school is followed by an internship and residency of six to eight years. The length of time depends upon the student’s specialty. The residency begins with “post graduate year one,” featuring training in trauma and critical care. Students later are trained in clinical neurology (the study of the nervous system) and neurosurgery.

Neurosurgeon Certification

Some residency programs mandate that students successfully complete a test administered by the American Board of Neurological Surgery.

To receive a license to practice neurosurgery in any state, applicants must pass oral and written ABNS exams. They also are required to provide practice data for the board to review. Every state’s medical-licensing board has a website providing information about how, when, and where to apply.

Neurosurgeon Salary

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Neurosurgeon Job Description Summary

Here is a short recap of the neurosurgeon job description:
  • Examine, diagnose and operate on the nervous system
  • Work with neurologists and other specialists
  • 4 year bachelor’s degree
  • 4 year medical school program
  • 6 to 8 additional years of residency program
  • Must be licensed to practice
  • 18% employment growth by 2022