What is MS hug?

The MS hug is a multiple sclerosis symptom that feels like there is a tight band around the chest or torso. It is also known as banding or girdling.

Like many MS symptoms, the MS hug feels different from person to person. Various people have described it as a feeling of pressure, an ache, a tickle, a pain, or a burning sensation. And they have said that the discomfort it generates ranges from “annoying to very painful.” The hug usually lasts a few seconds, but it can persist.

Some people with MS feel it in the hands or feet, others around the head.

What causes the MS hug?

The technical name for the MS hug is dysesthesia. It results from the damage that MS causes to the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. MS impairs the normal transmission of messages to and from the brain, making it difficult for the brain to interpret the signals it receives. In those situations, the brain can respond with a sensation, or mix of sensations, that include tingling, itching, burning, stabbing pains, or an electric shock-like feeling.

It’s important to know that these sensations are not a sign of damage to the areas where they are felt. Rather, the damage is in the nerves that communicate to the brain what’s happening in another part of the body. Pain in the chest can be an exception to this general rule, however. A doctor needs to examine it to make sure it’s not a heart problem — unless it has already been diagnosed as MS hug.

Is there a treatment for the MS hug?

The MS hug often doesn’t need treated. If it persists or is very painful, anticonvulsants such as gabapentin or pregabalin and antidepressants such as amitriptyline can help. Both types of therapies modify how the central nervous system reacts to pain.

Some people try to manage MS hug symptoms themselves. One way is to choose clothes they believe will help them do the best job of coping with the symptoms. Some prefer tight clothing, others loose, lightweight garb. The choice depends on which kinds of clothes they feel most comfortable in. The presumption is that comfortable clothes help them cope when MS hug strikes.

Other ways to manage MS hug include non-pharmacological treatments such as exercise — walking, stretching, yoga, gentle swimming or other activities recommended by a physiotherapist. Adequate sleep and meditation can help, and there is evidence that acupuncture can ease MS pain.

Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

The MS Hug: A Most Unwelcome Embrace

I knew very little about multiple sclerosis (MS) until my own diagnosis. I thought that MS affected one’s mobility, and that was about it. It wasn’t until I started experiencing symptoms for myself that I began to realize the full extent of my condition and the many invisible symptoms it could cause.

Within the MS community, some of these invisible symptoms have an almost mythic quality about them. There was one particular symptom that I often read about that fascinated me: It was called the MS hug, and I wondered if I would ever experience it.

Well, a few years into my multiple sclerosis journey I got to experience the MS hug for myself, and it was like meeting for the first time someone I had heard a lot about. Some aspects of the MS hug lived up to its reputation, and it wasn’t great, but for me, the experience was thankfully short lived.

So What Exactly Is the MS Hug?

The MS hug, or the MS girdle as it’s sometimes called, is a tightening or constricting sensation caused by muscle spasms surrounding the rib cage. This creates a tightening or girdle-like sensation around the chest or abdomen. Like many MS symptoms, the MS hug can feel different to each person. Some describe it as a discomfort whereas others find it more painful or distressing, especially when it makes it difficult to breathe.

My own experiences with the MS hug fall more into the discomfort or mild pain category. It wasn’t too alarming because I had read about “the hug” before, so I had an inkling as to what was going on when I woke up one day with a tightening sensation around my waist. Had I not known about it, I’m sure I would have been a lot more alarmed by experiencing tightness when I breathed.

The MS hug is both uncomfortable and not at all like a comforting hug. It’s more like a hug from someone you don’t particularly like but have to put up with. You’d rather not acknowledge their presence, and they’ve decided to make you very aware they are part of your life by giving you a full-body squeeze with no sign of ever letting go.

Is the MS Hug Painful?

My experience was not painful in the way a severe cramp or a sprain is. Mostly it was just uncomfortable and restrictive.

Have you ever worn something two sizes too small? For me, the MS hug felt a lot like that. The sensation reminded me of the time I wore my old formal dress to a wedding because I couldn’t get a new outfit in time. Although I managed to fit myself into it, there wasn’t a lot of breathing room, and I was afraid of taking a deep breath for fear I would bust a side seam.

In the case of the MS hug, my own skin became that dress. But unlike the dress, which I got to swap with some comfy sweatpants once I got home, the hug stuck with me until MS decided to release its embrace.

Did Stress Cause My MS Hug?

I experienced the MS hug around Christmas time, when I was doing my Christmas shopping, so I suspect it was brought on by the disruption and stress of the holiday season. When the hug occurred, I would tire very quickly due to the tightness around my chest and waist. Breathing was hard, and I would have to sit whenever I saw a chair or slump over the handles of shopping carts for support.

RELATED: Stress Less With MS This Holiday Season

After I saw my doctor and was cleared from other causes of chest pain, there really wasn’t a lot I could do other than slow down and rest. There are medical interventions available to relieve the spasms that cause the MS hug, but as my symptoms were most likely triggered by heat and fatigue, they were temporary.

Instead, I dealt with the things that had triggered this flare-up, such as fatigue, stress, and poor diet. Managing many of my MS symptoms centers around managing these three triggers through exercise, pacing myself, getting adequate rest, and eating the right foods.

RELATED: How to Get More Done When You Have MS: Pace Yourself!

These days the MS hug has become a bit of a distant memory. In the end I only had to put up with this uncomfortable hug for about two weeks. I haven’t experienced it since, and hopefully I may never experience MS’s unwelcome embrace again.

Pain is not a symptom of multiple sclerosis, right? Wrong. That has got to be one of the more frustrating myths for those of us living with MS. Pain in MS can show up as neuropathic pain or musculoskeletal pain. A particularly disturbing type of pain in MS that can sometimes feel like a boa constrictor is squeezing the breath out of you has commonly been called the MS hug.

Neuropathic pain

Symptoms of MS stem from damaged myelin (the coating that protects nerves) that impacts proper nerve function and health. Neuropathic pain can be caused by disrupted nerve signals. Symptoms of neuropathic pain may include abnormal sensations — tingling, numbness, skin crawling, itching, burning, or prickly sensations — which are called paresthesias. These can be acute or chronic, severe or mild, painful or just plain weird.

Musculoskeletal pain

In MS, disrupted nerve signals and overly sensitive motor neurons can lead to spasticity and/or painful muscle spams. Musculoskeletal pain caused by muscle spams, muscle weakness, physical stress on joints, or poor coordination are commonly associated with MS. These pains may be acute or chronic. When they show up suddenly, last only a brief period of time, and disappear rapidly, they are called paroxysmal symptoms. Paroxysmal symptoms may occur once or repeat over a longer period of time. If they show up repeatedly, that might be a sign of an MS relapse.

Treatment for MS pain

Common pharmacological management of neuropathic pain in MS includes anti-seizure drugs, corticosteroids, anti-spasticity drugs, or benzodiazepines. Antidepressant agents and opioids may help to modulate the experience of pain. Musculoskeletal pain may respond to physical therapy, stretching, spasticity medications, and conventional painkillers such as ibuprofen.

The MS hug: Definition and causes

The MS hug is a highly unpleasant, painful banding sensation that occurs anywhere around the torso. Some people in the online community have referred to the MS hug as the “Squeeze o’ Death.” Symptoms of the MS hug can show up anywhere on the torso, on one side or the other, or circling all the way around the body. The pain can range from mild numbness or tingling to excruciatingly sharp pain or pressure. Each person’s experience is unique and may even differ from one episode to the next.

Explanations of the cause of the MS hug vary. The pain may be neuropathic in origin such as dysesthesia (which is basically a really bad paresthesia). The pain might stem from extreme spasticity in the intercostal muscles of the rib cage. There are three layers of muscle fibers in the intercostal muscles that connect the ribs and assist with breathing. If these muscles are involved, symptoms may include chest tightening, difficulty breathing, and limited mobility.

What to do if you have the MS hug

If you suddenly experience chest pain or asthma-like symptoms, or you feel like a big snake is trying to squeeze the life out of you, don’t assume that it is your MS. Seek medical attention immediately. There may be another cause of your symptoms or pain. It’s better to err on the side of caution when your health is concerned.

The MS hug could be part of a relapse that needs steroids, or it could be a symptom of a pseudoexacerbation brought on by heat, stress, or fatigue. In the latter case, the symptoms should go away when the trigger for the pseudoexacerbation has resolved. In either circumstance, focusing on stress-reduction techniques may help to keep the hug from getting worse.

Treatment options for the MS hug

Although I have never personally experienced the MS hug, here are some suggested treatments and strategies that may help you if you do:

  • Treatment for neuropathic pain to reduce paresthesias

  • Anti-spasticity medications to reduce muscle tension

  • Antidepressants, opioids, or non-opioid pain medication to modify the pain response

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication to reduce inflammation

  • Corticosteroids to treat a relapse and reduce inflammation

  • Analgesic creams containing capsaicin or menthol (a word of caution: Test the cream on a small area of skin first to make sure that it doesn’t worsen the sensation.)

  • Herbal therapies, such as marijuana, may reduce spasticity (another word of caution: Marijuana possession is illegal in some states and side effects may affect cognition.)

  • Stress-reduction techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive relaxation, meditation, or creative visualizations

  • Movement therapies, such as gentle stretching, massage, or yoga

  • Body cooling, if the MS hug is triggered by heat sensitivity

  • Applied heat to relax and soothe tight, sore muscles and potentially to reduce spasticity

  • Reduction of potential triggers for muscle spasms or cramps, such as dehydration, caffeine consumption, or vitamin/mineral deficiency

  • Loose clothing to reduce pressure on the torso

  • Applied pressure to the torso to modify the squeezing sensation

See more helpful articles:

Top 50 Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

’At Least It’s Not Cancer’ and Other Unhelpful Comments about MS

Why Does MS Make My Legs Hurt?

MS hug: What you need to know

An MS hug often goes away without treatment, but medication is available if the feeling is persistent or very painful.

The type of medication will depend on whether the MS hug is due to dysesthesia or muscle spasms.

Medications for dysesthesia include:

  • anticonvulsants, such as gabapentin (Neurontin)
  • antidepressants, such as amitriptyline (Elavil)
  • over-the-counter pain relievers containing acetaminophen, such as Tylenol

Medications for muscle spasms include:

  • baclofen (Gablofen), which reduces the transmission of messages between nerves
  • tizanidine (Zanaflex), which blocks the impulse that causes muscles to tighten

Tips for managing an MS hug

Share on PinterestA hot water bottle or warm compress may help ease pain.

People can try a few different techniques for managing an MS hug:

Tricking the brain: Using a pressure stocking, wearing tight clothing, or tying a scarf around the affected area can trick the brain into experiencing the sensation of an MS hug as pressure rather than pain. Some people may find this helpful, but it will not work for everyone.

Applying heat: Pressing a warm compress or a hot water bottle with a cover on against the affected area can change the feeling of pain to one of warmth.

Avoiding the triggers: MS symptoms often worsen when a person is stressed, tired, unwell, or experiencing changes of temperature. Being aware of these triggers may help a person prevent an MS hug.

Resting: Trying to rest as much as possible, getting medical treatment when ill, and cooling the body down may all help ease the sensation of an MS hug.

Wearing loose clothing: For some people, loose clothes can feel more comfortable than tight clothes. Choosing a loose-fitting outfit may help prevent or lessen an MS hug.

Relaxation: Trying to relax or meditate may help the MS hug sensation pass more quickly.

MS is a long-term condition with no cure, so treatment aims to manage symptoms and prevent a relapse. Most people with MS will experience periods of remission, during which they have few or no symptoms.

A doctor will help a person with MS create a treatment plan involving a combination of medication, other therapies, and self-care that works for their individual needs. Regular exercise, a healthful diet, and plenty of rest may help ease symptoms and prevent a relapse.

New medications called disease-modifying therapies are proving effective in preventing flares. Anyone with MS who experiences relapses and is not currently using this type of medication may wish to speak to their doctor about the new options available.

MS Hug

Some people with multiple sclerosis (MS) experience the MS hug, a painful and/or restrictive sensation that often is centered around the chest or torso (where a hug would be). The MS hug is a type of dysesthesia, an abnormal sensation when there is no stimulus that may be unpleasant, painful, or restrictive. An MS hug can feel like a tight band or girdle is surrounding the body. As with many symptoms of MS, each person may experience the MS hug slightly differently, and some notice it in other parts of their body, including the hands, feet, or head. The duration of the MS hug sensation also can vary between different individuals: for some it doesn’t last long, while others find the feeling persisting. Some people find the MS hug to be quite disabling, while others may not be very affected by this symptom.1,2

As MS causes damage to the nerves, the nerves can no longer signal effectively. This loss of healthy nerve function causes many symptoms of MS, including the MS hug. In dysesthesia like the MS hug, the impaired nerves and the brain no longer communicate clearly, and the result is uncomfortable or painful sensations. One of the key characteristics of dysesthesia is that it occurs without a stimulus. In addition, it can reduce anxiety for the individual who experiences MS hug to know that while it can be painful, dyskinesia is generally not a sign of tissue damage.1,2

Is it an MS hug or a heart attack?

Most people experience the MS hug around the chest or torso, and the sensation of chest pain, pressure, or squeezing can also be symptoms of a heart attack. According to the American Heart Association, other symptoms of a heart attack include discomfort or pain in the upper part of the body (like the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach), shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness. It’s best to be evaluated by a doctor to determine whether symptoms are due to MS or heart disease.1,3

How is MS hug treated?

For people who experience the MS hug as a mild sensation or for whom the MS hug is short-lived, treatment may not be necessary. For those who experience significant discomfort or who find the MS hug to be disabling, treatments like Neurontin® (gabapentin) or Elavil® (amytriptyline). Other medications that have been approved for pain conditions associated with other diseases may also be used, such as Cymbalta® (duloxetine hydrochloride) or Lyrica® (pregabalin). Some people find that complementary approaches like acupuncture, meditation, or biofeedback, can also be helpful with painful symptoms like MS hug.1,4

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