As with many symptoms of the disease, MS hugs have no clear cause, but medication and self-care can help prevent them, as well as reduce pain and discomfort.
What is an MS hug?
An MS hug may feel like there is something tightly hugging the torso, causing discomfort and pain.
An MS hug, also known as banding or girdling, is a feeling of pressure around the chest, similar to having something wrapped tightly around the torso. An MS hug is likely to feel different for each person who has it.
MS symptoms stem 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 are often impaired in people with MS.
The condition has a wide range of symptoms that vary from person to person. Common symptoms include:
- muscle weakness
- difficulty walking
- vision problems
- chronic pain
How does an MS hug feel?
While the most common sensation is the feeling of pressure on the torso or around the chest, it can affect hands and feet as well. The sensation may make someone feel as if they are wearing tight shoes or gloves when they are not.
It can also affect the arms, legs, or even the head, and may only be felt on one side of the body.
People with MS have described the sensation in a number of ways, ranging from tickling or squeezing to crushing or burning. For some people, it can be extremely painful, making it difficult to breathe.
This feeling may last for a few seconds or be a constant sensation for many months or years. Because it causes pain and discomfort, 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 irritation or annoyance.
An MS hug is caused by damaged nerve cells sending confused messages to the brain about the sensations the body is feeling.
MS damages the nerves and affects different body and brain functions. An early MS symptom is a tingling feeling that is not caused by a real trigger, such as pins and needles or a burn.
The medical name for this sensation is dysesthesia, which comes from two Greek words that translate as "abnormal sensation."
An MS hug is a classic example of dysesthesia because the feeling of pressure does not come from a real band around the body, even though it feels like one. This happens because the nerves sending information to the brain about sensations the body feels are damaged, so they transmit a confused message.
Muscle spasms can also cause an MS hug. The intercostal muscles are small muscles between the ribs that help to move the chest in and out as someone breathes. If there is a muscle spasm or small movement that happens involuntarily, it may cause a stabbing pain or tightening sensation.
What to do
Unless someone has already been diagnosed with symptoms of MS hugs and knows what they feel like, any new chest pain should be checked by a doctor, as it could be a sign of a medical emergency.
People with MS, experiencing the sensation for the first time, should see a doctor and try to explain how it feels, including:
- how long it lasted
- what it felt or feels like, including any pain
- if it came on suddenly or gradually
- whether it prevents normal activity or sleep
If an MS hug passes quickly, it may help if a person sits and quietly rests while it is happening. Relaxing may help the feeling 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, and be sure to tell a doctor about their MS.
Treatment and prevention
An MS hug often goes away without treatment, but medication is available if the feeling is persistent or very painful.
The medication recommended will depend on whether the MS hug is dysesthesia or caused by muscle spasms.
A hot water bottle or warm compress may help to ease pain, when held against the affected area.
Medications for dysesthesia include:
- anticonvulsants, such as gabapentin
- antidepressants, such as amitriptyline
- over-the-counter medications containing acetaminophen, such as Tylenol
Medications for muscle spasms include:
- baclofen, which reduces the messages sent between nerves
- carbamazepine, which treats the pain associated with muscle spasms
- tizanidine, which blocks the impulse that causes muscles to tighten
Using a pressure stocking, wearing tight clothing, or tying a scarf around the affected area can trick the brain into feeling the sensation of an MS hug as pressure rather than pain. Some people may find this helpful, although others may not.
A warm compress or hot water bottle with a cover on, pressed against the area, can change the feeling of pain to one of warmth.
MS symptoms often worsen if someone is stressed, tired, unwell, or sensitive to heat. If a person is aware of these triggers, it can help prevent an MS hug.
Trying to relax, rest, get medical treatment for an illness, or cool down as needed are all ways to ease the sensation of an MS hug. For some people, loose clothing can feel better than tight clothes and may help to prevent an MS hug.
MS is a long-term condition with no cure, so the treatment will focus on managing symptoms and preventing a relapse. Most people with MS will experience periods of remission when they have few or no symptoms between flare-ups or relapses.
A doctor will help a person with MS make a plan of medication, treatment, and self-care that works for their individual needs. Regular exercise, a healthful diet, and plenty of rest can prevent a relapse and ease symptoms.
Although not everyone with MS will experience an MS hug, for some people, they will be an unavoidable part of the condition.
How long their MS hugs last, and the level of pain and discomfort caused, will affect how someone chooses to manage this symptom.
Establishing a good care plan that includes medication can lessen the effects of dysesthesia or spasms. A person can also try to stay rested and reduce their stress, which can help prevent an MS hug and lessen the impact it has if it happens.