For people with multiple sclerosis, an “MS hug” can be an unwelcome and painful symptom of the condition.
As with many symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS), an MS hug may have no apparent trigger. Medication and self-care can help prevent symptoms or reduce pain and discomfort when they occur.
In this article, we explain what an MS hug is, why it happens, and when to seek medical help.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and spinal column. MS stems from a problem with the immune system that causes it to attack healthy nerve fibers and myelin (the substance that coats them).
When MS causes damage to the nervous system, a person may experience many different effects. One of these is a feeling of tightness around their torso, hands, or feet. This is an MS hug.
This tightness can feel like a band has been placed around the chest, and can be described differently on a case-by-case basis. People also refer to an MS hug as banding, girdling, or an MS band.
An MS hug, which people also refer to as banding or girdling, is a feeling of pressure around the chest or abdomen. The specific feeling may vary from person to person, but it will usually feel similar to having something wrapped tightly around the torso.
MS produces a wide range of symptoms that vary between individuals. A person may experience some of the following alongside an MS hug:
The most common sensation is the feeling of pressure on the torso or around the chest or abdomen. Symptoms can also occur in the hands and feet. The person may feel as though they are wearing tight shoes or gloves when they are not.
An MS hug can also affect the arms, legs, and even the head. It may affect only one side of the body.
People with MS may describe the sensation in different ways, ranging from tickling or burning to squeezing or crushing. For some people, it can be extremely painful and make it difficult to breathe.
An MS hug may last for a few seconds, or it can be a constant sensation for many months or years. The length of the sensation may vary.
MS damages the nerves and affects different body and brain functions that the CNS controls. Early symptoms of MS may include intermittent tingling sensations.
The medical name for this sensation is dysesthesia, which comes from two Greek words that translate as “abnormal sensation.” An MS hug is an example of dysesthesia.
It can occur as a result of temporary impairment of the nerve cells in the spinal cord or the brain that relay information about physical sensations. This damage can prevent these nerves from sending messages.
Muscle spasms can also result in an MS hug. For example, the intercostal muscles are small muscles between the ribs that help move the chest in and out as a person breathes.
If a muscle spasm or small involuntary movement happens, it may cause a stabbing pain or tightening sensation.
Typically, if a person has experienced an MS hug before and recognizes a reoccurrence, they will not need to see a doctor. They should seek assistance if they are experiencing the sensation for the first time, they are finding it difficult to breathe, or the pain is severe.
People with MS who experience the sensation of an MS hug for the first time should contact a doctor and try to explain how it feels. The doctor will want to know:
- how long it lasted
- if it started suddenly or gradually
- what activities made it better or worse
- whether it prevented regular activities or sleep
A doctor may also ask what kind of pain a person is experiencing. Pain descriptors may include:
- sharp pain in the sides
- a burning sensation
- tightness, or a pressing feeling
- a tickling, uncomfortable sensation
Chest pain can sometimes be a sign of another problem, such as a heart attack. Because of this possibility, a person should seek help for any new chest pain in case it indicates a medical emergency.
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 that can help with 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
People can try a range of home therapies to manage an MS hug. These techniques are anecdotal, and no clinically proven cure exists for MS hugs.
At-home management techniques include:
Wearing tight clothing: Using a pressure stocking, wearing tight clothing, or tying a scarf around an affected area may trick a person’s brain into being more accepting of feelings of pressure. Some people may find this helpful, but it may not work for everyone.
Applying heat: Pressing a warm compress or a hot water bottle against the affected area may change the feeling of pain to one of warmth.
Avoiding triggers: MS symptoms often worsen when a person is stressed, tired, unwell, or experiencing changes in temperature. Being aware of these triggers and avoiding them may help a person prevent 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. As this research from 2014 notes, treatment aims to manage symptoms and help prevent a relapse or progressive worsening of symptoms. 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.
Not everyone with MS will experience MS hugs, but some people will experience them as an unavoidable part of the condition.
How long an MS hug lasts and how much pain and discomfort it involves will affect how a person chooses to manage this symptom.
Establishing an effective care plan that includes medication can lessen the effects of dysesthesia or spasms.
Trying to stay rested and reducing stress levels where possible can help prevent an MS hug and lessen its effects if it does happen. Stress, fatigue, temperature changes, and feeling unwell may also trigger an MS hug. A person should pay attention to possible triggers and avoid them where possible.
Discover more resources for living with MS by downloading the free app MS Healthline. This app provides access to expert content on MS, as well as peer support through one-on-one conversations and live group discussions. Download the app for iPhone or Android.