What is the MS hug?
The ‘MS hug’ is an uncomfortable, sometimes painful feeling of tightness. It can stretch all around the chest or stomach, or just one side.
It usually lasts for several minutes, but it can last longer, or pass even quicker. An MS hug can be unpredictable, tiring and stressful.
The MS hug can be one of the first symptoms of MS, or it can happen years after diagnosis. Not everyone with MS gets the MS hug.
Is the MS hug dangerous?
No, the MS hug isn’t dangerous. But get it checked out in case there’s something else causing that feeling which needs treating. And contact a doctor or nurse straight away if you’re ever worried about any chest pain.
What causes the MS hug?
Two different effects of MS might cause the MS hug:
- muscle spasms in the small muscles between the ribs (the intercostal muscles)
- changes in sensation (called dysaesthesia), which are sometimes, but not always, painful.
Mine tends to start with small stabbing pangs of pain and spasm in my side that slowly spreads around my torso. Although the hug can be debilitating, it does pass, which I try and keep in mind. If you’re ever in doubt or feel that your symptoms are worsening, get in touch with your GP, MS nurse or neurologist to chat. Shirley has been living with MS since 2017
What can I do about the MS hug?
People with MS use lots of different things to help with the MS hug – to stop it happening, or manage it better when it does. You might need to try lots of things to find what works best for you.
Ask for help, find out more
Lots of people with MS share their experiences and suggestions about the MS hug in our online community. And people at your local MS Society group might have similar symptoms.
A doctor or nurse can help you find out more about your MS hug, what’s causing it and how to manage it. They might refer you to a specialist pain clinic.
Look for possible triggers
You might notice something seems to trigger your MS hug. This could be fatigue, changes in temperature, eating a large meal, being unwell, or getting stressed. Not everyone finds a trigger, but if you do, you might be able to avoid it or reduce it.
If the trigger’s not obvious, you could try keeping a diary of how hot, stressed or tired you feel, what you eat, and so on. Then you can see if there’s a link to when your MS hug happens.
Loose clothes or tight clothes
Tight clothes seem to trigger the MS hug for some people, and might make it worse when it happens. So it makes sense to try looser clothes. This could include not wearing underwired bras. Some people take off items of clothing to feel more comfortable, when the situation allows.
On the other hand, tight clothes actually help some people deal with the MS hug. This may be because the grip of the tighter clothes distracts the brain and makes the MS hug sensations less obvious. Whatever the reason, it might work for you.
Move, stretch, or try a different position
When the hug happens, you might find it helps if you can move around, stretch, or sit up straight. If lying down makes it worse, you might find it helps to sleep propped up a bit with pillows. On the other hand, some people find lying down helps.
Apply hot or cold
Just like tight and loose clothing, the opposites of temperature seem to help different people.
Hot water bottles and warm towels on the affected area could both give some relief. Or you might find a cold compress helps. This could be an ice pack wrapped in a towel, or a damp facecloth cooled in the fridge.
But be careful of hot and cold things, especially if you’ve got sensory changes going on, as it’s quite easy to damage your skin.
Treatments for the MS hug
You might find physical treatments help your MS hug. These include physiotherapy, some complementary therapies, or TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation).
Relaxation, distraction, mindfulness, CBT
It’s easier said than done, but the MS hug is often easier to handle if you can stay calm, even relaxed. There are techniques to help with this, including:
- controlled breathing techniques
- CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)
Drug treatments for the MS hug
If your MS hug is caused by unusual sensations (dysaesthesia), drug treatments for pain might help. If the cause is muscles spasms, different drug treatments might help.
When the MS hug is a symptom of a relapse, steroids might help speed up recovery.
You might need to try a few treatments before you settle on something that’s right for you. And it could be a combination of drug treatments and other techniques that best help you manage your MS hug.
Describing the MS hug
People describe their MS hug in different ways. For some it’s uncomfortable, for others it’s painful. If you need to describe your MS hug, use whatever words make sense to you.
For example, is it a tingling? Some people say their ribs are painful to touch, or their skin feels like it’s been stung by nettles.
It can feel like it’s making it harder to breathe – as if there’s a rubber band around the chest, or a corset done up tight. People sometimes call it banding or girdling.
Describing the MS hug to your doctor
There’s not just one medical name that describes everyone’s MS hug – because MS can cause those kinds of feelings in different ways.
So a doctor or nurse will want to know more about your experience of it.
This will help them rule out causes that are not MS, and suggest the best ways to manage it whatever the cause.
If it is an MS symptom, they might describe it as dysaesthesia (unusual sensations) or muscle spasms – two different ways MS could create a hugging, squeezing effect.