What Tests Diagnose MS?

Written by Kimberly Holland | Published on January 13, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on January 13, 2014

Know the risks and rewards of MS tests.

Diagnosing Multiple Sclerosis

Diagnosing multiple sclerosis (MS) is not straightforward. No single test can quickly or clearly pinpoint MS. Instead, a series of tests and procedures are needed to identify the central nervous system disease. Only then can doctors rule out other possible causes and truly begin to treat MS and the symptoms it causes.

Learn how MS is discovered and the tests that are used to reach a diagnosis. 

What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, debilitating disease that damages the central nervous system. MS attacks and destroys myelin, a protective coating that shields nerve fibers in the central nervous system. As myelin is destroyed, your brain, spinal cord, nerves, and other parts of the central nervous system suffer from the damage.

More than 2.3 million Americans have MS. The severity of the disease is different for each person. Thanks to recent treatments and advances in diagnosis procedures, patients with MS can lead better, more fulfilling lives. 

The State of Treatment Today

Despite many advances, doctors still do not have a single test that can diagnose MS definitively. Instead, they must rely on several tests and procedures to first rule out other possible causes. Only then, can they declare a diagnosis. If your doctor suspects you have MS, he or she may use some or all of the following tests to help understand the symptoms you’re experiencing. These tests are outlined in the 2010 Revised McDonald Criteria, a plan that helps doctors diagnose MS more easily.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a powerful tool for diagnosing MS. Currently, it is the most advanced form of imaging that can detect plaques on the brain. These plaques, or lesions, typically serve as a clear indicator of MS. However, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, a small minority of MS patients don’t show these scars initially.

Because MRI is a non-invasive procedure, it is preferred over more invasive procedures like the Spinal Fluid Analysis. An MRI exam can also help doctors see how advanced the disease is and how it responds to treatment.

Visual Evoked Potentials

A visual evoked potential (VEP) test records your nervous system’s electrical response when it is stimulated. Before this test, a healthcare provider will connect you to sensors. The doctor will then give you visual, auditory, or sensory stimuli. The sensors record your nervous symptom’s response to the stimuli. Subsequent tests can tell doctors if myelin has been damaged. Longer response times typically indicate myelin damage. The delay in response may be so minor you can’t tell a difference, but the VEP test can detect such delays.

Spinal Fluid Analysis

In order to analyze your spinal fluid, your doctor may conduct a spinal tap or lumbar puncture. This procedure removes a small amount of fluid from around your spine for analysis. The fluid is then tested for the presence of proteins that may suggest you have MS. In particular, doctors are looking for oligoclonal bands. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, these bands are present in the spinal fluid of between 90 and 95 percent of people with MS.

Your Medical History

Understanding a patient’s health history is very important to doctors. Your past affects your present health. To better understand what might be causing your symptoms, your doctor will want to conduct a thorough physical exam, as well as a verbal health history.

Important things to share with your doctor include:

  • a family history of diseases or illnesses
  • a personal history of disease or illness
  • a personal history of illegal drug or alcohol abuse
  • a personal history of mental or emotional problems
  • any major life events that affect health

Blood Analyses

If your doctor believes you have MS, he or she might order a variety of blood tests. These blood tests can help rule out other possible causes for your symptoms. These blood tests can check for a multitude of diseases, illnesses, and conditions that might affect your immune system. Your results may show another explanation for symptoms you’ve been experiencing—or they may show nothing, which could point your doctor back towards a MS diagnosis.

The Right Tests for You

Many conditions mimic MS, and no single test can diagnose it. To reach a diagnosis, your doctor will likely conduct several tests over a period of weeks and months. Reaching a diagnosis can be difficult. It will require patience and understanding, which may feel confusing and frustrating. It’s important to maintain an open dialogue with your doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This relationship will help you reach a diagnosis more quickly and may serve you well as you begin planning your treatment options.

Was this article helpful? Yes No

Thank you.

Your message has been sent.

We're sorry, an error occurred.

We are unable to collect your feedback at this time. However, your feedback is important to us. Please try again later.

Show Sources

Read This Next

Diagnosing Multiple Sclerosis: How Lumbar Puncture Works
Diagnosing Multiple Sclerosis: How Lumbar Puncture Works
Doctors use several methods to diagnose multiple sclerosis, including lumbar puncture. Learn what to expect when getting this procedure and what it can reveal.
The Best Multiple Sclerosis iPhone and Android Apps of the Year
The Best Multiple Sclerosis iPhone and Android Apps of the Year
These best multiple sclerosis apps provide helpful information and tools to keep track of your symptoms, including medication reminders.
A Closer Look: Multiple Sclerosis MRI Images of the Brain
A Closer Look: Multiple Sclerosis MRI Images of the Brain
If you have signs and symptoms of MS, your doctor may order an MRI of the brain and spine. MRI allows doctors to see lesions in the central nervous system.
Famous Faces of MS
Famous Faces of MS
Learn about those who rose to fame and remained among the stars despite their multiple sclerosis – including Annette Funicello, Richard Pryor and Montel Williams.