According to the MS Trust, a lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap) is a test that can be used to help diagnose multiple sclerosis (MS). During the procedure, some of the cerebrospinal fluid is removed and analyzed. A lumbar puncture takes about half an hour and is done under a local anaesthetic.
So how is a lumbar puncture useful in diagnosing MS?
When analyzing the cerebrospinal fluid taken in a lumbar puncture, doctors are looking for the white blood cell count, as it can be up to seven times higher in patients with MS. However, if the white blood cell count is much higher, it normally indicates some kind of infection and not MS.
In MS, the myelin sheath is attacked by antibodies that pass through the blood-brain barrier. Therefore, MS patients often have a higher number of antibodies present in the cerebrospinal fluid which can be analyzed by lumbar puncture. This procedure is called electrophoresis, where a fluid sample is placed on some gel, combined with electrical voltage. This makes the antibodies cluster together forming “bands.” It is normal to have one of these bands, called oligoclonal bands. MS patients, however, can often have one or more of these bands, although it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone who has more than one has MS.
Although a spinal tap’s results are a good indication, other tests are always needed to fully confirm an MS diagnosis. It’s also important to note that people with normal protein levels can still go on to have MS.
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