Multiple sclerosis, otherwise known as MS, is a central nervous system (CNS) disease that makes the immune system attack the protective coating of nerves in the brain and spinal cord.1 At the cellular level, an inflammatory immune response destroys myelin sheathing (demyelination), which surrounds and protects healthy nerves.2 Demyelination causes signal disruptions in communications to and from the brain. MS is unpredictable and inconsistent; it manifests differently in each person.
Variability in MS symptoms is huge. The disease is unpredictable and affects everyone differently when it comes to things like symptom duration, intensity, frequency, and severity. However, there are several commonly reported signs and symptoms of MS.
Common early signs and symptoms of MS include:
Other common symptoms of MS include:
There isn’t a single test or criteria that can definitively diagnose MS. Instead, diagnosing MS can be a process of rule outs, tests, and thorough neurological exams. An official diagnosis of MS is made according to a 3-factor test, and all elements must be met:
Neurological exams. A medical history and a neurological exam are sometimes sufficient to make a confident guess at an MS diagnosis, but extensive rule outs, medical imaging scans, and the passing of time are often needed to definitively confirm it. A neurological exam tests key functions often affected by MS, such as reflexes, coordination, balance, sensory perception, and cranial nerve function (ability to swallow, see, hear, control facial muscles, and feel facial sensations).
Medical imaging scans. MRIs of the brain and/or spine are helpful in spotting areas of demyelination, sometimes referred to as lesions or plaques. In spots along the brain and spinal cord where the myelin is stripped, electrical signals that would normally pass smoothly between brain and body become fuzzy and choppy, causing unpleasant and sometimes painful symptoms.3 Getting an MRI with contrast allows radiologists to clearly identify existing and new lesions.
Rule outs. Blood tests can rule out diseases that have similar symptoms to MS, like infections, hereditary diseases, mineral or vitamin deficiencies, and other immune system disorders like lupus and Sjogren’s syndrome.
Other tests. Cerebrospinal fluid evaluations via spinal tap or lumbar puncture can confirm the presence of immune function abnormalities. Evoked potential studies use various sensory nerve stimulations to measure the speed and quality of electrical conduction along nerve pathways.
Though basic causes of MS have not been conclusively established, there are certain factors that seem to increase the risk of developing it. Women are three times as likely as men to develop MS. MS also behaves differently during and after pregnancy. Both of these things suggest that female hormones may play a role in its development. Stress, smoking, age (most diagnoses are made between ages 20 to 50), low vitamin D, and obesity have also been linked to higher rates of MS.
There's no cure for MS yet, but early detection is crucial to managing symptoms and slowing its progress. Once MS has been diagnosed, there are a number of ways to manage it:
If you've been diagnosed with MS or are being screened for it and need an MRI, head to scan.com’s scan search tool and find a reputable scan center near you.
nationalmssociety.org: National MS Society
hopkinsmedicine.org: What is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
clevelandclinic.org: Multiple Sclerosis (MS): Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatments
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