Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a difficult disease, not just to cope with but also to even diagnose. Many patients can go for several years from one doctor to another with no definitive answers until finally the diagnosis is made. The reason is that many symptoms that MS creates are symptoms that are apparent and representative of other diseases as well.
Part of the problem in diagnosing MS is that there are no definitive tests strictly for MS screening. Rather there are several tests given that in total can point, with some certainty, to MS. Basically, the symptoms are reviewed in conjunction with various radiology studies as well as lab testing and even cognitive function. Your doctor may indeed come to an MS conclusion based on the results of these screening techniques:
1. Neurological Testing An examination will methodically test each part of your nervous system which includes your sense of touch, heat and cold, pain and even vibration. In addition, reflexes are tested as well as muscle strength and your muscle tone. The doctors will examine your posture, balance, coordination and how you carry yourself when you walk. Finally, there will be a question and answer session to test cognitive skills like memory, judgment and how clear your thought processes are.
2. Medical History Your doctor or doctors will review all of your symptoms along and also as part of a group. They will likely ask you to keep a diary of your days to keep track of pain, fatigue and more to determine a probable pattern in the symptoms as a part of trying to pinpoint the diagnosis.
3. Magnetic Resonance Imaging aka MRI This is a powerful test in which you are passed through a cylindrical shaped tube which emits a magnetic field and radio waves. This scanner creates computer generated images that doctors can study. Typically, you would be injected with a dye like gadolinium via an IV so that it can course through your body. This dye will illuminate the MS lesions in the brain and spinal cord area via the MRI. The images can be created from every possible perspective for the doctors to study. Some MRIs can show the extent of the MS damage to the myelin and nerves.
4. Lumbar Puncture aka Spinal Tap A sample of your spinal fluid is obtained via a spinal tap and sent to a lab for analysis. Testing will show abnormalities like white blood cell counts or protein levels that are out of whack, two indicators of possible MS. A spinal tap can also rule out infections and various other conditions which can cause similar MS symptoms.
As you can see, there are several tests that in and of them selves would not be the sole indicator of the disease multiple sclerosis. However, taken collectively, the results of the testing can definitely point doctors towards an MS diagnosis. Some of these tests may be taken several times at various periods to make comparisons as well. Perhaps one day there will be one definitive test that could test for MS, but until then, the four screening techniques listed above are a doctors best tools.