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Delays in diagnosis are overwhelming for many people with multiple sclerosis

28 May 2015 Heather Lang

Many people with multiple sclerosis (MS) wait for years for an accurate diagnosis, a time described by some as ‘overwhelming’, according to the results of a survey published this week by the MS Society.1 MS leads to irreversible disability if left untreated and although there is no cure, early diagnosis and treatment play a vital role in preventing disability from accumulating.2 The disease can be diagnosed by a neurologist – sometimes from a clinical examination and initial brain scans3 – but significant delays often occur before this point. The survey of over 1500 people with MS found that:1

  • a fifth had to wait between 1 and 3 years for a diagnosis after visiting their general practitioner (GP) with symptoms
  • a quarter saw their GP more than four times before being referred to a neurologist
  • approximately half were initially diagnosed with a trapped nerve, stroke, depression, anxiety or stress.

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of the MS Society, stated that “Our findings highlight the struggle people go through for years before they get an MS diagnosis. Being misdiagnosed or experiencing symptoms that can’t be explained can put a considerable strain on people’s emotions and health ... While we are aware that MS is a complex condition that isn’t easy to diagnose, we don’t want thousands of people to be left in ‘limbo’ suffering needlessly.”1

The survey illustrates how symptoms of the disease are often mistaken for other conditions. In MS, the body’s own immune system damages tissue in the brain and spinal cord, and the initial symptoms can vary widely depending on the locations of damaged areas. The most common types of symptoms are sensory (numbness, tingling, burning pain), motor (weakness, stiffness, clumsiness, difficulty walking), visual and fatigue (a feeling of lacking physical or mental energy that interferes with usual or desired activities).4

Mitchell commented, “It’s important for GPs to recognize the warning signs and refer people promptly to a consultant neurologist who can then make an accurate diagnosis. Most people who experience MS-like symptoms won’t have the condition, but if you’re concerned for any reason, your GP should still be your first port of call.”1 

1. MS Society. Symptoms of MS are mistaken for other conditions, survey reveals. Available from: http://www.mssociety.org.uk/ms-news/2015/05/symptoms-ms-are-mistaken-other-conditions-survey-reveals (Accessed 28 May 2015).

2. Costello K, Halper J, Kalb R et al. The use of disease-modifying therapies in multiple sclerosis: principles and current evidence. Multiple Sclerosis Coalition, 2014. Available from: http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.mscare.org/resource/resmgr/PDF/DMT_ConsensusMSC_color.pdf (Accessed 28 May 2015).

3. Runia TF, Jafari N, Hintzen RQ. Application of the 2010 revised criteria for the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis to patients with clinically isolated syndromes. Eur J Neurol 2013;20:1510–16. doi:10.1111/ene.12243

4. Multiple Sclerosis International Federation. Atlas of MS 2013: mapping multiple sclerosis around the world. Multiple Sclerosis International Federation, 2013. Available from: http://www.msif.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Atlas-of-MS.pdf (Accessed 28 May 2015).


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