An MS hug is a symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS) that feels like pressure around the chest or abdomen.
People also refer to an MS hug as banding or girdling. It can often be the first symptom of MS.
As with many symptoms of 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.
This article explains an MS hug, 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 an MS hug, which involves a feeling of tightness around the torso, hands, or feet.
The specific feeling may vary from person to person, but an MS hug often feels like having something wrapped tightly around the upper body.
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 differently, ranging from tickling or burning to squeezing or crushing. It can be extremely painful for some people and make breathing difficult. An MS hug may also:
- feel like a sharp or dull pressure
- be temporary, chronic, or sporadic
- feel better when changing to loose clothing
- feel better when applying heat or cold
A person may also experience some of the following alongside an MS hug:
Some people living with MS also report experiencing shortness of breath, shaking, weakness, and swelling with an MS hug, but it is unclear whether these symptoms are related or have a different cause. A person experiencing any unusual symptoms should check with their doctor.
An MS hug may have a range of causes, including:
MS damages the nerves and affects the 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.
A muscle spasm or small involuntary movement may cause a stabbing pain or tightening sensation.
Although it is often referred to as MS hug, this sensation can be due to other conditions. These include:
In situations when a person does not have a diagnosis of MS or another condition, an evaluation by a doctor is the only way to determine a cause. A person who thinks they may be having a heart attack should go to the emergency room.
Is it a heart attack?
Heart attacks occur when there is a lack of blood supply to the heart. Symptoms include:
- chest pain, pressure, or tightness
- pain that may spread to arms, neck, jaw, or back
- nausea and vomiting
- sweaty or clammy skin
- heartburn or indigestion
- shortness of breath
- coughing or wheezing
- lightheadedness or dizziness
- anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack
If someone has these symptoms:
- Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
- Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.
If a person stops breathing before emergency services arrive, perform manual chest compressions:
- Lock fingers together and place the base of hands in the center of the chest.
- Position shoulders over hands and lock elbows.
- Press hard and fast, at a rate of 100–120 compressions per minute, to a depth of 2 inches.
- Continue these movements until the person starts to breathe or move.
- If needed, swap over with someone else without pausing compressions.
Use an automatic external defibrillator (AED) available in many public places:
- An AED provides a shock that may restart the heart.
- Follow the instructions on the defibrillator or listen to the guided instructions.
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 signify 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
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can help with muscle pain
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 temperature changes. 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: Relaxing or meditating may help the MS hug sensation pass quicker.
MS is a long-term condition with no cure. The treatment
A doctor will help a person with MS create a treatment plan involving a combination of medication, other therapies, and a self-care routine that works for their individual needs. Regular exercise, a nutritious 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 manages 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 Healthline’s free app Bezzy MS. This app provides access to expert content on MS and peer support through one-on-one conversations and live group discussions. Download the app for iPhone or Android.
Read on for answers to more questions on MS hug.
Why do I get an MS hug?
An MS hug is a symptom of MS, which damages the protective layer of myelin around nerve fibers in the brain. Researchers believe the cause is an immune system attack on the body.
How long does an MS hug last?
An MS hug may last a few seconds or be a constant sensation for months or years. The length of the sensation may vary.