Tests and diagnosis

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Diagnosis of multiple system atrophy (MSA) can be challenging because there's no test that can make or confirm the diagnosis. At the same time, certain signs and symptoms of MSA — such as muscle rigidity and unsteady gait — also occur with other disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, making the diagnosis more difficult.

As a result, some people are never properly diagnosed, although doctors are increasingly aware of the disease and, thus, more likely to identify its symptoms.

If your doctor suspects multiple system atrophy, he or she will obtain a medical history, perform a physical examination, and possibly order blood tests and brain-imaging scans, such as an MRI, to determine whether brain lesions are present that may be triggering symptoms.

You may receive a referral to a neurologist or other specialist for specific evaluations that can help in making the diagnosis.

Tilt table test

One procedure that can aid in the diagnostic process is a tilt table test to help determine if you have a problem with blood pressure control. In this procedure, you're placed on a motorized table and strapped in place. Then the table is tilted upward so that your body is nearly vertical.

Throughout this maneuver, your blood pressure and heart rate are monitored. The findings can document not only the extent of blood pressure irregularities but also whether they occur with a change in physical position.

Tests to assess autonomic functions

Doctors may order certain other tests, to determine how your body is functioning. Tests to assess your body's involuntary functions may include:

  • Blood pressure measurement, lying down and standing
  • A sweat test to evaluate perspiration
  • Eye exam
  • Tests to assess your bladder and bowel function
  • Electrocardiogram to track the electrical signals of your heart
  • Nerve and muscular examination

If you have sleep irregularities, particularly if they involve interrupted breathing or snoring, your doctor may recommend having you evaluated in a sleep laboratory to determine if you have an underlying and treatable sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea.

May 20, 2014