When it came to diagnoses, 43 were more common among people later diagnosed with MS, versus people with no autoimmune disease. And, Hemmer said, they were often symptoms indicative of MS — including urinary problems, visual disturbances, abnormal skin sensations, impaired movement and dizziness.
MS can be difficult to diagnose early on, partly because there is no single test for it.
“MS symptoms are sometimes subtle and spontaneously remit without any treatment,” Hemmer said. “Often these patients are not referred to a neurologist, or they cancel the appointment because the symptoms have disappeared.”
Dr. Andrew Solomon, a neurologist and associate professor at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, coauthored an editorial published with the study.
“There’s no question that diagnostic delay is a problem,” he said, adding that the reasons “are probably many.”
For one, Solomon said, “MS can look like other things, and other things can look like MS.”
To diagnose the disease, he explained, doctors rely on symptoms — not only what they are, but their pattern of occurrence — along with MRI brain scans or lab tests that can detect signs of MS-related damage to the central nervous system.
Sometimes the process involves monitoring patients over time, Solomon said.
But, he added, delays often start earlier on, with some patients not being referred to a specialist in a timely manner.
Solomon said the new findings do not discount the notion that MS has a prodromal phase. Some study patients, for example, may have had such non-specific symptoms at some point before their initial neurological complaints.
Experts want to know if there is indeed a prodromal period because understanding the earliest indicators of MS could aid in speedier diagnosis.
Regardless of the existence of an MS prodrome, though, the earlier the disease is diagnosed, the better, Solomon said.
A host of so-called disease-modifying drugs are available for MS that not only control symptom flares but can also slow the disease’s progression. And earlier treatment, Solomon said, may have a bigger impact on the risk of disability over the long run.