Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a condition which affects the nerves in the brain and the spinal cord. The precise causes of MS are unknown and diagnosis can be difficult as the condition doesn’t present in specific way and all of the symptoms associated with MS can be linked with other more common conditions, so the road to diagnosis can at times seem frustrating whilst the doctors work hard to rule out these other conditions.
Symptoms may have occurred over several years, or you may have put them down to other things happening in your life, such as being incredibly tired after having a baby, or symptoms may come on suddenly and unexpectedly. MS has many symptoms and not everyone’s experience of MS will be the same.
The most commonly reported symptoms include problems with vision, feeling pins and needles, increased pain and fatigue. Issues with speech, balance and dizziness, problems with memory and clear thinking as well as bladder and bowel problems.
If you think that you have MS your first step to diagnosis will be to visit your GP, who will initially take the time to rule out other conditions. Do make sure to tell your doctor of any strange symptoms that you may have experienced over the years, such as numbness or tingling as it will help them to build a clearer picture towards diagnosis. If they think MS could be the cause of your symptoms they will refer you to a neurologist.
There is no single test to determine a diagnosis of MS. Investigations for diagnosing MS include blood tests, a neurological and physical examination where they will check for changes or weaknesses in your coordination, balance, vision, speech and reflexes. You will also be sent for an MRI scan to create a detailed picture of your brain and spinal cord. The scan is very accurate and confirms a diagnoses in 90% of people with MS. A lumbar puncture, which removes a sample of fluid from around your spine, will also be performed. This fluid will be tested for antibodies, which are not present in people who don’t have MS.
There is a set of criteria known as the McDonald Criteria and clinicians use this as a guide to know which tests to perform and what to look for to provide an accurate diagnosis of MS as early as possible, giving a patient access to the right treatment sooner.