What is multiple sclerosis?

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- In the aftermath of former reality star Jack Osbourne's stunning announcement that he has multiple sclerosis, many people are wondering exactly what the disease entails.

Dr. Barry Hendin, the chief of neurology at Banner Good Samaritan Hospital, sat down with 3TV's Kaley O'Kelley Tuesday morning to explain it.

"MS is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system misinterprets parts of the nervous system as foreign and goes on the attack …," he said.

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The central nervous system, which means the brain, the spinal cord and the optic nerve, is most often the victims of that attack, which destroys the myelin that insulates and protects nerve fibers. Scar tissue grows in the myelin's place and damages the nerve fiber. Between that damage and the loss of myelin, nerve signals can get lost in transmission. That's when MS symptoms develop.

While most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50 -- Hendin prefers the age range of 15 to 45 -- MS can strike at any age.

"I have people much younger and I have people much older," Hendin said. Osbourne is 26.

There are two main kinds of MS.

Relapsing-remitting MS is the most common form if the disease. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, RRMS involves periodic "attacks of worsening neurologic functioning followed by periods of remission in which partial or complete recovery occurs."

Primary-progressive MS, which accounts for only about 10 percent of MS cases, involves "gradual progression of neurological problems," Hendin said.

With a third form of the disease, called secondary-progressive MS, a patient who started out with relapsing-remitting MS transitions from having discrete attacks to slowly and progressively declining. The progression from relapsing-remitting to secondary-progressive can take 10 to 20 years.

Symptoms of MS can range from mild to severe, and can include muscle or motor weakness, blurred or hazy vision, eye pain, tingling or tightness in the legs, and possible balance or bladder problems. In the early stages of MS, these symptoms can come and go, which can make diagnosis difficult.

MS, which is twice as common in women as in men, affects each patient differently so it only makes sense that signs and symptoms of the disease vary from person to person.

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"It can attack any part of the central nervous system, which is to say there may be unique signs in the individual, unique symptoms for one person," Hendin said.

Doctors and scientists still do not know exactly what causes MS, but they have some working theories. They believe it's a combination of genetic, environmental, infections and immunologic factors.

"There are a lot of things that create susceptibility, and part of that susceptibility is probably genetic susceptibility," Hendin said. "The genetics aren't enough. There must be things acting on that genetic susceptibility …."

Those contributing factors can be environmental (such as exposure to sunlight, which is good for MS patients) age, gender, or even exposure to a virus.

What researchers do know is that MS is not contagious or directly inherited.

While MS is a chronic and often debilitating disease, it's generally not considered fatal. Most patients live normal life-spans, albeit with varying and increasing levels of difficulty.

There is no cure for MS, but medicine has come a long way in developing drugs to control the symptoms, slow the progression of the disease and reduce the number of attacks, all of which improve the quality of life for patients.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are about 400,000 people in the U.S. living with MS. About 200 more are diagnosed every week. While there are no hard global numbers, "MS is thought to affect more than 2.1 million people" worldwide.

Hendin's practice is Phoenix Neurological Associates. For more information, visit www.phoenixneurology.com.