Similar Symptoms, Different Diseases: Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO) and Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

With so many symptoms in common, it’s no surprise that NMO (Neuromyelitis Optica) is frequently confused with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) and other diseases. NMO, a distinct disease characterized by inflammation of the spinal cord and/or optic nerves, affects the body in many of the same ways as MS. These overlapping symptoms can create confusion, delay of diagnosis, or even misdiagnosis.

Why is it so important to identify NMO with the correct diagnosis? First, the treatments for both diseases are remarkably different. For instance, some MS treatments (interferon beta medications) may be ineffective in treating NMO, or actually make NMO symptoms worse! (Patients with NMO respond to immunosuppressive medications). Second, early detection can mean a more favorable outcome for this incurable, but treatable, autoimmune disease.

How can you tell the difference between NMO and MS? NMO symptoms include rapid onset of eye pain or loss of vision (optic neuritis), limb weakness, numbness, or partial paralysis (transverse myelitis), shooting pain or tingling in the neck, back or abdomen, loss of bowel and bladder control, and prolonged nausea, vomiting or hiccups, and sometimes breathing difficulties. MS symptoms develop gradually over time and include fatigue, numbness, walking (gait), balance and coordination problems, bladder dysfunction, bowel dysfunction, vision problems, dizziness and vertigo, sexual dysfunction, pain, cognitive dysfunction, emotional changes, depression, spasticity. Sound the same? With symptoms nearly identical to MS, diagnosing NMO can be complex and challenging, even for experienced clinicians and neurologists. This rare autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy cells, can lead to temporary or permanent blindness and/or paralysis. Thus, it is important spot the disease early to control tissue inflammation and prevent further tissue damage.

How is NMO diagnosed? A simple blood test, which detects the NMO IgG antibody, is often utilized. However, you should know that most NMO IgG tests list a 5-10% chance of a false-positive result, or a 20-30% chance of false negative result. Other options are Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to check for spinal cord lesions, or ophthalmology studies to check for damage to the optic nerve or retina.

Once this disease has been accurately diagnosed, it can be treated with the proper medications – including preventative treatments for NMO attacks. Unfortunately, things can become even more complicated from here. Those battling NMO face frightful barriers to treatment when dealing with insurance companies. Tragically, there is not a single drug in the country that is FDA approved and specifically used to treat NMO. This creates added tension for those who are already struggling with their illness, as they battle with insurance companies to approve off-label treatments.

Living with NMO can be a life changing experience. Dealing with insurance barriers – on top your diagnosis and its many severe symptoms – can feel overwhelming and unjustifiable. If you have experienced an NMO related insurance denial, contact Kantor & Kantor at (877) 783-8686 for a no-cost consultation.

We understand, and we can help.

For more information on NMO, see the Guthy Jackson Foundation.

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