Could It Be MS? How Doctors Test and Diagnose Multiple Sclerosis

Here’s how docs know for sure whether or not you have MS.

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When a person goes to the doctor to get a symptom (say, tingly hands) evaluated, most aren’t thinking they have multiple sclerosis. “They’re thinking they have an infection or some other mild medical complaint, and then a diagnosis of MS takes them by surprise,” says Michelle Fabian, MD, a neurologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

MS is a nervous system disease that affects your brain and spinal cord. It’s an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system damages the myelin sheath, the material that surrounds and protects nerve cells. This damage slows down or blocks messages between your brain and your body, which can causing a wide range of debilitating symptoms, like weakness, blurry vision, and trouble balancing.

An MS Diagnosis: What Doctors Are Looking For

To diagnose MS, doctors first perform exams and tests to rule out other causes of the patient’s symptoms, and then use several strategies to determine if their symptoms fit the criteria for MS.

If a primary care doctor suspects MS, they’ll refer them to a neurologist. The neurologist will listen to the patient’s story, and then begin to seek out the source of their symptoms. “What they’re looking for in the exam, is whether we can relate the symptom to a problem in the central nervous system, the brain or the spinal cord, or the peripheral nervous system, which are the nerves that connect the brain to the spinal cord,” says Dr. Fabian.

Tools for Making an MS Diagnosis

The neurologist will perform a neurological exam, carefully examine the patient’s medical history, and conduct various tests, which may include:

  • blood tests to rule out other possible conditions
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for MS lesions
  • evoked potentials (EP) to measure electrical activity in the brain
  • a spinal fluid analysis to look for a marker in their spinal fluid

An Early MS Diagnosis is Key

If you’re feeling any symptoms that are unusual to you, like numbness, difficulty walking, dizziness, or cognitive changes, always check with your doctor. “We do want to get a patient on treatment sooner rather than later,” says Dr. Fabian. Many studies show that the earlier the treatment for MS, the better that patient will do in the long run.