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 clear cause, but medication and self-care can help prevent it or reduce pain and discomfort if it does 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, which consists of the brain and spinal column. Common symptoms include pain, tingling, and weakness. An MS hug is one of the less common symptoms. It can happen when there is MS-related damage to the spine.
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 is likely to vary from person to person, but it will usually feel similar to having something wrapped tightly around the torso.
MS stems from a problem with the immune system that causes it to attack healthy nerve fibers and the substance called myelin that coats them. Researchers are still trying to determine the underlying cause of the immune system's reaction.
MS affects the nerves that are responsible for transmitting information about movement and sensation around the body, so these functions often do not work effectively in people with this condition.
The disease produces a wide range of symptoms that vary between individuals. Common symptoms include:
- muscle weakness or stiffness
- difficulty walking
- vision problems
- numbness or tingling
Additional problems may also occur, such as bladder and bowel changes, tremor, and depression.
The most common sensation is the feeling of pressure on the torso or around the chest or abdomen, but 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 have described the sensation in several different ways, ranging from tickling or burning to squeezing or crushing. For some, it can be extremely painful and make it difficult to breathe.
This feeling may last for a few seconds, or it can be a constant sensation for many months or years.
The pain and discomfort of an MS hug may affect day-to-day activities, such as exercising or sleeping. For people with mild symptoms, an MS hug can be more of an irritation or annoyance.
MS damages the nerves and affects different body and brain functions. Early symptoms of MS include a tingling feeling with no clear trigger.
The medical name for this sensation is dysesthesia, which comes from two Greek words that translate as "abnormal sensation."
An MS hug is a good example of dysesthesia because the feeling of pressure does not come from a real band around the body, even though it feels like one.
It occurs as a result of damage to the nerves that send information to the brain about the sensations that the body feels. This damage causes them to transmit a confused message.
Muscle spasms can also result in an MS hug. 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.
A person who has a diagnosis of MS and can recognize an MS hug does not need to seek medical help unless it is their first time experiencing this sensation, they are finding it difficult to breathe, or the pain is severe.
However, chest pain can sometimes be a sign of another problem, such as a heart attack, so a person should seek help for any new chest pain in case it indicates a medical emergency.
People with MS who experience the sensation of an MS hug for the first time should see a doctor and try to explain how it feels. The doctor will want to know:
- how long it lasted
- what it felt or feels like, including any pain
- if it started suddenly or gradually
- what activities make it better or worse
- whether it prevents normal activity or sleep
When they become aware of the MS hug, people can try sitting and resting quietly, as relaxing may help it pass.
If breathing becomes difficult or painful or the chest pain is severe and feels like a heart attack, a person should call 911 or their local emergency number. They should be sure to tell a doctor about their MS.
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
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.
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.