A common cause of disability, multiple sclerosis takes place when the immune system mistakes the myelin sheath of the nerves as a disease-causing substance. The excessive immune response harms fatty tissue and neurons alike, thereby disrupting the flow of messages to and from the brain.
Patients with multiple sclerosis may experience numbness or weakness in the limbs, tremors, and uncoordinated body movements. If those symptoms sound familiar, it's because they are also associated with migraine, stroke, and other disabling conditions.
Multiple sclerosis and stroke share the following symptoms: attention problems, dizziness, numbness in the limbs, slurring, impaired eyesight, and difficulties in walking. Migraine also causes dizziness and eyesight problems.
Like multiple sclerosis, these conditions also harm the brain, which may explain the shared symptoms. But they are very different health concerns and require different treatments. (Related: Great at ANY age: Medical marijuana helps elderly people with Parkinson’s, MS and sleep problems.)
In a new study, researchers from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Vermont (UVM) evaluated 241 instances of patients who received diagnoses of multiple sclerosis. The participants visited two academic medical centers in Los Angeles, California – they got referred to the hospitals by healthcare professionals in other L.A. clinics.
“The diagnosis of MS is tricky,” explained Dr. Marwa Kaisey, an author of the study who worked at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Both the symptoms and MRI testing results can look like other conditions, such as stroke, migraines, and vitamin B12 deficiency.”
The study sought to find out how many people got misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Additionally, it looked for general characteristics in misdiagnosed patients.
The results showed that many of the patients misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis underwent treatment for a nonexistent disease. Further, the unnecessary treatments continued for four years before healthcare providers finally caught on to their error.
Kaisey and her UVM colleague Dr. Nancy Sicotte found that migraine was the most common condition mistaken for multiple sclerosis. Next came radiologically isolated syndrome, where the MRI scan somehow diagnosed the patient with the chronic disease despite not displaying any symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis.
The study showed that 72 percent of the patients misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis took pharmaceutical drugs to treat a disease that didn't exist. Of that number, close to half – 48 percent – underwent treatments that may result in progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML).
An uncommon viral infection, PML goes after nerve cells directly. It injures the white matter in the brain, which is made up of neurons.
Kaisey and Sicotte believed that the misdiagnosed participants spent almost $10 million on unneeded pharmaceutical drugs, some of which might have caused a severe medical condition in the form of PML. Furthermore, the patients also experienced medical and psychological costs on top of the expenses.
“I've seen patients suffering side effects from the medication they were taking for a disease they didn't have,” remarked Kaisey. “Meanwhile, they weren't getting treatment for what they did have.”
The researchers published their findings in the health journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders. They believed that their study would help reduce the danger of misdiagnosing a patient with multiple sclerosis in the future. Having identified the issue, they were now looking for ways to increase the accuracy of diagnosis.
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