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MS Diagnosis

Making a diagnosis of MS can be difficult. Some people have few attacks or such mild symptoms that the disease goes untreated for a longer time. However, recent advances in technology -- MRI scans and blood tests -- are helping doctors confirm a multiple sclerosis diagnosis much earlier than in the past.

Diagnosing MS: An Overview

There isn't a specific test available to make an MS diagnosis. (MS is the abbreviation for multiple sclerosis.) In fact, confirming a diagnosis is notoriously difficult because the early symptoms of the disease can be vague or mimic other condition. The symptoms of multiple sclerosis can also come and go, making it even more challenging to make an accurate diagnosis.
Because of these factors, some people will receive a diagnosis of MS soon after the illness begins, while others will not. In some of these cases, doctors may not be able to readily identify the causes of the symptoms, leading to years of uncertainty and several diagnoses and symptoms that come and go.
While challenging in some cases, an MS diagnosis can be made based on the patient's medical history, a neurological exam (which is an examination of how well the brain and spinal cord are functioning), and other tests.

Tests Used to Make an MS Diagnosis

Some of the tests used to make a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis include:
  • Blood tests
  • An MRI
  • A spinal tap
  • An electrical test called "evoked potentials," which tests the function of your sensory nerves.
The best test to diagnose MS is an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. MRI produces x-ray-like images that are better than other methods for seeing certain areas of the central nervous system. With an MRI, it is possible to see the places where myelin has been damaged. (Myelin is the fatty substance covering nerve sheaths that helps them conduct impulses more quickly.)
If the diagnosis is still uncertain after an MRI, your healthcare provider may do a test that measures how fast your nerves conduct impulses. This is called an evoked potentials test.
Also, a sample of fluid from your spine may be analyzed for protein changes that are often found in people who have multiple sclerosis. This is called a spinal tap, LP, or lumbar puncture.
More than one MRI may be done over time. Several MRIs can show plaques appearing in different areas of the central nervous system at different times. This confirms the MS diagnosis.
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