The tests for MS

There are a range of tests that a neurologist will use to find out if someone has MS or not. Although it can be frightening to go through medical tests, the health professionals involved should reassure you and make it as easy for you as possible.

Tests for MS include:

The neurologist will use specific criteria to diagnose MS, known as the McDonald criteria.

Neurological examination

Your neurologist will ask you lots of questions about your 'history', meaning your health problems and symptoms, now and in the past. This helps the neurologist get a better picture of you and can help identify any other problems that may explain current symptoms.

A physical examination checks for changes or weaknesses in your eye movements, leg or hand coordination, balance, sensation, speech or reflexes. Whilst a neurologist may strongly suspect MS at this stage, a diagnosis won't be given until other test results confirm MS.

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Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

An MRI scanner uses a strong magnetic field to create a detailed image of inside your brain and spinal cord. It is very accurate and can pinpoint the exact location and size of any inflammation, damage or scarring (lesions). MRI scans confirm a diagnosis in over 90 per cent of people with MS.

To get the image of a person's brain and spinal cord they must lie down and enter a small tunnel in the centre of the MRI scanner. The process can take between 10 and 60 minutes and is painless, though some people can feel a little claustrophobic in the scanner. The Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has produced a video which explains what to expect when you have an MRI

>> Find out more about MS and MRI scans

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Evoked potentials tests

This painless test involves measuring the time it takes for your brain to receive messages from your eyes, ears and skin. Small electrodes are placed on your head. These check how your brain reacts to sounds you hear in headphones, patterns you see on a screen or sensations you feel on your skin. Messages to and from your brain will be slower if MS has damaged the myelin covering around some of your nerves.

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Lumbar puncture

This is sometimes called a spinal tap. A needle is inserted in your lower back, into the space around your spinal cord. You have a local anaesthetic for this. A small sample of the fluid around your spinal cord is taken and tested for signs of MS. People with MS often have antibodies in this fluid. Antibodies show your immune system is active in your brain and spinal cord. This is something that isn't seen in people who don't have MS. 

People often get headaches following a lumbar puncture. The medical staff should advise you on how to manage this. Lumbar punctures are used less now that MRI scans are more common. 

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Other tests

To rule out conditions that are similar to MS, other tests may also be done. These may include blood tests to reveal certain antibodies, and inner ear tests to check your balance.

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