MS is diagnosed the same way in children as it is in adults. In the past, MS was diagnosed by having two separate attacks in different areas of the brain. Today, a new method lets doctors use MRI (magnetic resonance imaging, a type of brain scan) to diagnose MS in people who have had only one attack (called a single demyelinating event).
It can be more difficult to diagnose MS in children and teens than in adults. This is partly because MS is less common in children and teens, so doctors may not be expecting to see it. It is also partly because children are more prone to a similar medical condition called ADEM (Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis). ADEM is much more common than MS in childhood.
ADEM causes symptoms similar to MS, including decreased strength; coordination or balance problems; altered sense of touch; or vision changes. It may happen after a child has had a viral infection or has been given a vaccine. It can be hard for doctors to tell ADEM apart from a first MS attack (single demyelinating event) in children. This can make the diagnosis more difficult.
Children and teens usually have the same MS symptoms as adults. These include fatigue, bladder problems, coordination and balance problems, and changes in cognitive function. Cognitive function refers to the ability to think, make decisions, concentrate, and remember facts. In children and teens, cognitive changes can affect schoolwork.
Although children and teens have symptoms similar to adults, the course of their medical condition may be different. Nearly all children have a type of MS called relapsing-remitting MS, like most adults. The progressive types of MS, such as primary-progressive or progressive-relapsing, are very rare in children.
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