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Multiple Sclerosis Testing and Diagnosis

How Is Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Diagnosed?

Right now, there are no specific tests for diagnosing multiple sclerosis. In order to diagnose multiple sclerosis, doctors use a differential diagnosis. This method of diagnosis relies on ruling out conditions with signs and symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis.

Diagnosing multiple sclerosis quickly and accurately is important as permanent neurologic damage can occur in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. Early diagnosis also gives patients more time to adjust to their diagnosis. 

What tests are needed to diagnose multiple sclerosis? In addition to an exam and looking at your medical history, your doctor may perform the following tests for multiple sclerosis:

Blood Tests

Blood tests can help rule out diseases that have similar symptoms to multiple sclerosis.

Spinal Tap

Also known as a lumbar puncture, a spinal tap allows for a small sample of fluid to be removed from your spinal canal. Spinal fluid tests can show abnormalities in antibodies that are associated with MS.


An MRI can show lesions on your brain and spinal cord that indicate multiple sclerosis is present.

What Can I Expect During the Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosis Testing?

Your doctor will give you more insight on how to prepare and what to expect during a multiple sclerosis diagnosis test.

Blood tests are a very simple procedure that will cause minimal to no pain. Patients may feel a small sting when the needle is inserted or removed. Blood tests only usually last a few minutes.

During a spinal tap, the patient’s back is washed with antiseptic soap or iodine. A local anesthetic is injected into the patient’s lower back to numb the area where the needle will be inserted. A thin needle is then inserted between the two lower vertebrae and into the spinal canal. Patients may feel pressure in their back during this part of their procedure and may be asked to change positions slightly once the needle is in place. After extracting the necessary fluid, the needle is removed and the puncture site is covered with a bandage. A spinal tap can last about 45 minutes.

During an MRI, the patient will be asked to lie down on a bed and remain still. The MRI machine will move in order to get the clearest images. MRIs are painless, but people with claustrophobia may feel uncomfortable or anxious during the scan. An MRI can last anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours.

What Are the Stages of Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a different experience for everyone with the disease. It is broken down into the following three stages:

Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis

Most people with multiple sclerosis have relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. People with this type of multiple sclerosis usually start showing symptoms in their early 20s. Attacks of symptoms will return from time to time, followed by remissions that can last weeks, months or years.

Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis

People with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis will eventually move on to the secondary progressive phase of multiple sclerosis. In most people, the change to this type of multiple sclerosis happens between ten to 20 years after being diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.

Secondary progressive is difficult to treat and can be hard to handle for patients. Symptoms worsen at different rates for everyone. While treatments for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis work well, patients may experience trouble using their body like they used to.

Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis

In primary progressive multiple sclerosis, the disease gets worse over time. At this stage, there are no well-defined attacks and there are little to no remissions. Primary progressive does not respond well to treatments.

Banner Brain & Spine’s compassionate and expert staff is here to help you through every step of your multiple sclerosis diagnosis journey. Reach out to us with questions during any stage and to discuss MS testing and symptoms.