Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a degenerative disease that affects the nerve cells. In MS, the body’s own immune cells mistakenly attack the protective coating around the nerves. When the coating is damaged, signals from the brain are not able to flow smoothly through those nerves and parts of the nervous system malfunction, leading to the symptoms of MS.
MS is a difficult condition to diagnose because the symptoms can be very different in each person, depending on which nerves are under attack. Sometimes doctors must wait until symptoms worsen before they can make a definitive diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
MS attacks nerves in the central nervous system which consists of the brain, spinal cord, and the optic nerve which connects the eyes to the brain. Symptoms in different parts of the central nervous system may suggest a diagnosis of MS.
Symptoms your doctor may look for include:
• Abnormal reflexes
• Decreased feeling or abnormal sensations in part of the body, such as not being able to balance due to lack of feeling in the feet
• Decreased ability to move part of the body, such as dragging one foot
• Loss of other nervous system functions
Your doctor may also see these signs of MS during an eye examination:
• Abnormal or unequal response from the pupils of the eyes
• Changes in visual fields, which is a measure of peripheral or side vision while you are looking straight ahead
• Changes in eye movement
• Decreased vision or loss of clear vision
• Problems with the inside of the eye
Because MS is difficult to diagnose, your doctor may first order tests to rule out other possible neurological diseases. Some common tests used to diagnose MS include:
• Blood tests – These tests can rule out infections and inflammatory conditions that have symptoms similar to MS.
• Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – Scans of the brain and spinal cord may show areas where the protective coating around the nerves is damaged by MS. However, MRI may not be conclusive because other conditions such as Lyme disease and lupus can cause similar damage to nerves.