Diagnosis

Diagnosing multiple system atrophy (MSA) can be challenging. 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. The clinical examination, with various autonomic tests and imaging studies, can help your doctor determine whether the diagnosis is probable MSA or possible MSA.

As a result, some people are never properly diagnosed. However, doctors are increasingly aware of the disease and more likely to use physical examination and autonomic tests to determine if MSA is the most likely cause of your 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 or shrinkage (atrophy) is 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

This test can 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.

During the test, your blood pressure and heart rate are monitored. The findings can document both the extent of blood pressure irregularities and whether they occur with a change in physical position.

Tests to assess autonomic functions

Doctors may order other tests to assess your body's involuntary functions, including:

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

If you have sleep irregularities, especially interrupted breathing or snoring, your doctor may recommend an evaluation in a sleep laboratory. This can help diagnose an underlying and treatable sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea.