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Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Diagnosis & Expected Duration

Monday, Aug. 27, 2007; 7:46 PM

Copyright Harvard Health Publications 2007


Table of Contents

Your doctor will look for signs of neurological problems, including vision changes, difficulty in walking or in coordinating body movements, muscle weakness, trembling hands, or loss of sensation.

To confirm the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, your doctor probably will order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of your brain and/or spinal cord to check for areas of inflammation and myelin sheath destruction. Other possible diagnostic tests include a detailed eye examination by an ophthalmologist (a physician who specializes in eye problems), evoked potentials (special tests to record electrical activity in the brain) and a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to obtain spinal fluid for analysis. Spinal fluid may show abnormal types of proteins, called immunoglobulins, a characteristic finding in multiple sclerosis.

Expected Duration

Multiple sclerosis is a lifelong illness that can follow one of several different patterns. The three most common patterns are:

  • Relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis - In this form, there are relapses (episodes when symptoms suddenly get worse), followed by remissions (periods of recovery). Between relapses, the patient's condition is usually stable, without deterioration.

  • Primary progressive multiple sclerosis - In this form, symptoms worsen gradually and continuously. There are no episodes of relapses and remissions.

  • Secondary progressive multiple sclerosis - In this form, someone who originally had relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis begins to have gradual deterioration in nerve function, with or without relapses. Secondary progressive multiple sclerosis ultimately affects 50% of people with relapsing remitting MS.

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