Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that causes your immune system to attack the protective covering of your nerves.
The condition affects people differently, causing mild to moderate symptoms in some, and more severe symptoms in others.
Since MS can progress and become debilitating, it’s important to contact your doctor regularly, even if you have mild symptoms. This allows your doctor to monitor your health and level of disability.
A walking test is one technique doctors use to gauge MS progression and disability. This can include walking for a certain distance or time or a 12-item walking questionnaire.
The results of these tests also help doctors assess the effectiveness of therapy.
This test entails walking a certain distance with or without an assistive device. Your doctor will time how long it takes you to get from point A to point B.
Since MS affects parts of your brain and spinal cord that control mobility, you may experience a slow, gradual decline in your ability to walk. A walking test, however, is designed to identify variances in your mobility early.
Maintaining independence is important for many people living with multiple sclerosis, which often involves the ability to walk and complete other activities with minimal assistance.
A slower walking speed often indicates limited mobility, which could be a predictor for disability in the long term.
Your doctor will compare your speed with the speed that a person without a disability walks in the same span of time. Understanding your current abilities will help determine appropriate treatment.
Your doctor will also compare your results with the results of prior tests, to see the changes over time. This can help them evaluate whether treatment is effective or needs to be adjusted.
Treatment for MS focuses on reducing inflammation in your central nervous system. This can slow the progression of the condition and promote remission. This is a period when symptoms disappear.
Achieving remission often involves the use of medications that modify the condition and anti-inflammatory medications to reduce inflammation, as well as immunosuppressant medications to suppress your immune system.
Your doctor may recommend a 10-meter walking test. This allows them to assess functional mobility, as well as your gait.
You’ll be instructed to walk 10 meters. You can even use a cane or walker, although your doctor will document the level of assistance. They’ll note whether you need:
- minimal assistance
- no assistance
- moderate assistance
The amount of time it takes you to walk 10 meters helps your doctor better understand the extent of your condition.
Your doctor might also suggest a timed 25-foot walking test, sometimes shortened to T25FW or T25-FW.
This walking test is slightly different because it involves walking 25 feet as quickly as you can, with or without an assistive device.
For this test, you’ll start on a marked 25-foot course. The test starts once you take the first step, and stops once your foot hits the 25-foot mark. You’ll likely walk 25 feet in one direction, and 25 feet back to the starting point.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the 25-foot timed walking test is part of the multiple sclerosis functional composite (MSFC), an assessment in three parts that providers can use to track progression.
Another test, the timed 500-meter walk (T500MW), may also be used as part of the expanded disability status scale (EDSS), according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
An alternative to the 10-meter and 25-foot walk test is the 6-meter walking test.
The concept behind this walking test is the same as the others — starting at a designated marker, and walking a distance (in this case, 6 meters) as fast as you can. Your doctor tracks how long it takes to walk a shorter distance.
Likewise, this walk test measures functional mobility. If it takes you longer to walk 6 meters compared to an adult without a disability, you might have some functional decline.
Another method of evaluation is the 12-item multiple sclerosis walking scale (MSWS-12).
According to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, the MSWS-12 involves a self-report you’ll complete regarding how much MS is currently impacting your ability to walk. Questions focus not only on speed, but also on:
- climbing stairs
- the use of supports
- overall effort needed for walking
Each answer on the report receives a number value, and these are combined to give an overall score that reflects how severely walking is currently impacted.
Because MS affects people differently, a walking test is one way for doctors to determine the condition’s progression and assess whether a particular treatment is working.
An inability to quickly walk short distances also points to physical or functional limitations that might qualify you for supplemental disability insurance, or indicate a need to switch occupations or consider other rehabilitation.
Doctors can’t always gauge the condition’s progression by simply looking at you. And sometimes, mobility variances aren’t apparent until you complete a walking test.
Walking tests have the benefit of being inexpensive and easy to implement, making them a useful tool for doctors to evaluate your current status.
But although effective, a walking test isn’t the only way to measure disability and MS progression.
Doctors must take other factors into consideration, too, such as whether you have other conditions that can slow walking speed. These conditions might include arthritis or chronic back pain.
They’ll also take age into consideration. Younger adults with MS may walk at a faster speed than older adults with the condition.
The bottom line is that walking tests provide clues about mobility. But you shouldn’t rely solely on the results from conducting your own test at home. Schedule an appointment with a doctor for an accurate walking test.
Your doctor can track your progress over time. They can use your initial walk test as a benchmark, and then use subsequent tests to calculate whether your walking time increases or decreases.
Due to the progressive nature of MS, your walking speed can gradually decline without you realizing.
Alternatively, your walking speed may improve with successful treatment. Your doctor can also evaluate other factors that may impact changes to your walking test.
Walking tests don’t take a lot of time to complete. You can usually finish one in under 10 minutes, and the testing is likely covered under health insurance.
MS can be debilitating, yet the right treatment and lifestyle changes may improve your symptoms and your daily life experiences.
Schedule regular follow-up appointments with your doctor for evaluations like walking tests. This will help you work together to:
- track your symptoms
- look for signs of the condition’s progression
- adjust your treatment as necessary