Why MS Is So Hard To Diagnose

Posted by Hilary Young on March 31, 2017

Why MS Is So Hard To Diagnose

Multiple Sclerosis affects more than 2.3 million people across the globe, but it remains one of the more difficult diseases to diagnose. Symptoms typically appear between the ages of 20 and 50--a thirty year gap, which often lends itself to being initially confused with other age-related disorders or diseases.

There are many other diseases that mimic MS symptoms in the early stages. Often times, people have to spend a significant amount of time jumping from specialist to specialist in the hopes of finding the proper diagnosis. So what, exactly, makes a multiple sclerosis diagnosis so difficult?

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A Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosis: It’s Complicated

A primary reason that it is so hard to diagnose MS is the fact that there’s no specific test that doctors can run to definitively determine whether you have the disease. The symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis tend to be widely varied from patient to patient, making it challenging for physicians to attribute certain symptoms solely to MS.

In a Time Magazine article about Jack Osbourne, the famous son of musician Ozzy Osbourne who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at the age of 26, Dr. Timothy Coetzee, the chief research officer of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, discusses why it’s so hard to determine a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis:

“Everyone is different. The variation in symptoms reflects the different parts of the brain that are under attack. For some people, it’s the part of the brain that deals with movement and they have trouble walking, others have vision problems and others have very mild tingling. The brain is so complex and we don’t know what part the immune cells will attack. It’s unfortunately a question we don’t know the answer to at this point.”

Dr. Coetzee does, however, go on to say that all of the indicators for a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis are neurological.  “The best way to lead to a confirmation is undergoing an MRI. They use a chemical to see if there is damage and white marks in certain areas of the brain. This combined with other symptoms leads to a diagnosis.”

MS Symptoms To Look For

So what, exactly, are those other MS symptoms you should be on the lookout for? Common early MS symptoms include:

  • Vision Loss. Jack Osbourne reported to People Magazine that he was only diagnosed with MS after losing 60% of the vision in his right eye. If you are experiencing rapidly declining vision in one or both eyes, see your ophthalmologist immediately. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society also notes that MS can cause “poor contrast or color vision and pain on eye movement.”
  • Numbness or Tingling. Because MS is a neurological disease, experiencing a “pins and needles” sensation on one side of the body or complete numbness of the extremities, face and body is not uncommon.
  • Fatigue. The National MS Society says that 80% of people who end up with a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis experience fatigue, which “can significantly interfere with the ability to function at home and work, and may be the most prominent symptom in a person who otherwise has minimal activity limitations.”
  • Heat Sensitivity. Again, due to the neurological component to Multiple Sclerosis, heat intolerance--such as being uncomfortable when your body temperature rises while exercising, or experiencing discomfort in a hot bath or shower--is one of the more common MS symptoms.
  • Walking or Gait Difficulties. MS can change the way you walk. According to the National MS Society, this can be attributed to “weakness, spasticity, loss of balance, sensory deficit and fatigue.” This symptom can be especially troublesome, since the loss of balance can lead to frequent falls and injuries.

How MS Can Affect Your Balance

Multiple Sclerosis can often cause balance and coordination issues, which means that MS and frequent falls are not uncommon. The National MS Society has published a brochure to help people living with MS minimize their risk of falls, noting in their opening sentence that “Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.”

MS creates mobility challenges for those who are diagnosed with the disease, creating dangerous side effects: fall-related injuries. The brochure goes on to cite the fact that “studies have shown that approximately half of middle-aged and older individuals with MS experience at least one fall over a six-month period.”

While you certainly cannot control the neurological inner workings of your brain, you can arm yourself against ending up in a situation where you don’t have access to help in a fall-related emergency. Although MS and frequent falls can put you at risk, with a medical alert device from Medical Guardian, you’ll never have to worry about being alone in an emergency.

Medical Guardian is also a proud supporter of Preakness At The Piazza, a Philadelphia-area annual fundraiser that benefits the National MS Society.


TAGS: multiple sclerosis diagnosis ms symptoms ms and frequent falls