Obtaining a definite multiple sclerosis diagnosis can be a long, frustrating process. For many people this can take years. Unlike many other diseases, there is no single definitive test for MS.
When the doctor suspects strep throat, he performs a throat culture and you receive a positive/negative result within 48 hours. When a doctor or neurologist suspects MS, tests can be run but often the results are inconclusive. Unlike many diseases, there is no such thing as a "text book case" of multiple sclerosis. Symptoms and disease course vary greatly from person to person. A multiple sclerosis diagnosis is based on observation, symptom history, and various test results. These tests include, but are not limited to: MRI, visual evoked response, and spinal tap.
A neurologist looks for neurological incidents that are separated by time and space. This means that the symptoms must be clearly separated by time; weeks, months, or years with a duration of at least a few days. The symptoms must also be separated by space; involving different parts of the nervous system.
My case is a good example. In 1992, I experienced numbness in both legs from the knees down. This lasted for about 6 months and had my doctor and neurologist stumped. I became frustrated but this symptom went away and I forgot about it. In mid-1995 I developed paralysis on the left side of my face. The onset was sudden and my co-workers sent me to the doctor right away believing I had experienced a stroke. The doctor diagnosed Bell's Palsy. The paralysis lasted about 4 months.
The symptom which led to a possible diagnosis occurred in January 1996. I had just had sinus surgery and was recovering at home. I woke up on the third morning to find that I had no color vision in my left eye. There was also a blind area shaped like a piece of pie. This was very frightening. I was fortunate to be able to find an opthamologist who would see me right away. He took the most thorough medical history I have ever had, performed an eye exam and then made the announcement that would change my life forever.
"You definitely have optic neuritis," he said, "However, due to your previous neurological symptoms, I believe there is a chance you may have multiple sclerosis." Those last two words hung in the air for a moment. As the words began to sink in, I asked what we could do.
I was sent to a neuro-opthalmologist at a nearby University. This neurologist ordered an MRI and a Visual Evoked Response test. The MRI showed numerous lesions in the brain, indicative of MS. My VER was also abnormal. Within a few weeks I had a probable MS diagnosis. Two months later I had another attack and it became official; I am a person with multiple sclerosis.