When it comes to multiple sclerosis (MS), having the right doctors on your side is essential. With various specialists involved in the treatment process, understanding their roles can make a big difference. MS can affect any part of the body. So how do you know which specialist to see for which problem? And who do you talk to first for a referral? If you’re looking for more information about what type of doctor to see based on your symptoms, this article is for you.
Here, we review the different kinds of health care providers who might be involved in the treatment of MS and managing its symptoms — depending on which symptoms you have.
Your primary care doctor is responsible for taking care of your overall health and is the gateway doctor to access all other types of doctors. They’re general practitioners and trained in either internal medicine or family medicine. They’re also often the first person you speak to when you have a question or concern about your health, want guidance on improving your health, or need an annual physical exam.
Primary care doctors know your medical history, manage your general medical conditions, order blood tests to prevent disease, and coordinate your health care needs between different specialists.
One member of MyMSTeam described their comprehensive care with a primary care doctor. “I just got home from seeing my primary doctor. She is checking my kidney function out. … Since I’m not having any typical symptoms of high blood pressure, she’s thinking something is going on with my kidneys.”
Primary care doctors are also trained to know when you need more specialized care and are your closest partner in managing your long-term health.
Your primary care doctor is usually the first point of contact if you have an early symptom of MS that’s picked up on an annual visit or if you’ve discussed a concern at an appointment. They’re likely to refer you to a neurologist to evaluate your neurological symptoms and get the right diagnosis.
If you’re living with MS, you likely have a neurologist to guide your MS treatment plan. If you’ve just recently been diagnosed with MS, you likely have a new neurologist who is now overseeing your health care or you may be looking for one. Either way, your neurologist is the main point of contact for all questions and concerns related to your MS.
Neurologists are doctors who are trained specifically to care for disorders of the nervous system, and MS care falls into their scope of expertise. If you have MS, your neurologist will determine which treatment options (including disease-modifying therapies, or DMTs) are best for you. DMTs help slow down the progression of MS and reduce the frequency and severity of relapses.
Your neurologist will also figure out which medications are suited to treat your neurological symptoms. Neurologists prescribe medications to prevent relapses, treat relapses as they’re happening, and treat symptoms of MS — including spasticity, MS-related pain, fatigue, bowel/bladder issues, sexual dysfunction, weakness, numbness, walking difficulties and more. If you’re concerned about any of these symptoms or have a question about your medication or its side effects, neurology is the next step. Your neurologist is the gateway doctor to all other specialists who can help treat an MS-related problem.
Members often share their experiences with neurologists and why it’s important to find one with MS expertise. “I have a specialist in MS, and he really listens to me. I’ve tried so many different medications until I found the one I’m on now. It’s made a big difference, but it took lots of trial and error to find it. Please try to find a neurologist that specializes in MS, it makes a big difference,” one member wrote.
If you’re living with MS and have symptoms involving your eyes or your vision, you’ll need to see an ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist is a doctor trained specifically in eye care and disease. If you’re experiencing long-term blurry vision, double vision, blind spots, loss of vision, or eye pain, ask your doctor for a referral and make an appointment with an ophthalmologist. If any of these symptoms come on suddenly, it could be an emergency and you should go to the nearest emergency room (ER) right away.
A urologist has specialized training in the treatment of diseases affecting the male and female urinary tract and the male reproductive system. Many people living with MS experience problems managing their bladder symptoms. If you’re living with urinary incontinence, urinary retention, or erectile dysfunction, a urologist is the type of doctor who can help you. You will likely need a referral to see a urologist, so be sure to ask your neurologist.
A physiatrist, also known as a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, is a doctor with specialized training in rehab medicine. They are trained to treat and prevent disabilities related to the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system), nerves, bones, and muscles. Their main focus is improving overall physical function and quality of life and reducing pain for people with disabilities.
You should consider asking for a referral to a physiatrist if you have limited physical functioning or need help with your pain. This type of doctor can be a good supporter in your care team to help you improve your independence. You will likely need a neurologist to order a referral for you to get an appointment.
One MyMSTeam member shared their experience: “There are good … . MS physiatrists that can really help. Great strides have been made by MS physiatrists in dealing with a huge host of MS symptomatic problems.”
Some people with MS experience pain. If you have pain that’s severe, difficult to treat, or unresponsive to medications, it might be time to see a pain medicine doctor. This doctor is trained in anesthesiology or neurology with additional training in pain medicine. If you’re experiencing any type of pain that’s just not getting better, ask your neurologist or primary care doctor for a referral to a pain medicine doctor.
Many people living with MS experience stress and/or problems with their mood, including depression and anxiety. Your mental health is important, and these problems can be treated. Psychiatrists are doctors trained to treat mental health. Support groups may also help.
One MyMSTeam member described their reasons for seeing a psychiatrist. “I’m still having problems with my anxiety. I made an appointment with my psychiatrist.”
You will likely need a referral from either your primary care doctor or neurologist. It’s important to be open and honest with your doctors about mental health symptoms to make sure you get the best care.
If you think you’re having a relapse, or are experiencing sudden weakness, dizziness, vision changes, facial drooping, or trouble speaking or walking, go straight to the ER. When you arrive and after you’re seen by a nurse, an emergency room ER doctor will evaluate you. These are doctors trained at diagnosing and treating emergency problems. If you’re having a problem related to your MS or a neurological emergency, they’ll call a neurologist to evaluate you either in the ER or once you are admitted onto a hospital floor.
One member of MyMSTeam described their experience: “Horrible day. Passed out, and lost bladder and bowel continence. Ambulance to ER. CT scan. Seeing my primary in the morning.”
Never delay going to the ER if you have a new and concerning symptom. Prompt treatment can help prevent disability and/or treat a life-threatening medical emergency.
There are several different therapists available to help you manage specific symptoms you may be having, and they work alongside doctors to help you feel and function your best. Ask your primary care doctor or neurologist for referrals.
Speech language pathologists are health professionals trained to evaluate and treat disorders involving communication and swallowing. If you experience difficulties with speech, including slurring your speech, or have trouble swallowing food, a speech language pathologist is the best person to help you.
Occupational therapists are health professionals trained to help people improve their functioning and ability to perform important everyday tasks, such as eating, dressing, toileting, and more. If you’re having difficulty with activities of daily living, occupational therapy can help you.
Physical therapists are health professionals trained to help people with movement and range of motion and manage pain, stiffness, and discomfort. If you’re having trouble with muscle weakness, walking, or not being able to move as well as you’d like to, physical therapy may be able to help.
In summary, it’s crucial to understand the roles of different doctors in treating MS for thorough care. Each specialist has distinct skills to address specific challenges linked to the condition. Neurologists take a central role in diagnosing and managing MS, while other professionals like physical therapists, occupational therapists, urologists, and mental health specialists contribute to different aspects of treatment and symptom control. Collaborating with a team of doctors allows people with MS to receive care based on their unique needs, which can improve their overall quality of life and independence.
MyMSTeam is the social network for people with MS and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 198,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.
Are you living with MS and wondering which specialist to see for your symptoms? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.