The ‘MS hug’ is an MS symptom where you feel pain or tightness around the chest or stomach area. It’s not dangerous, but it can be frightening, especially if you haven’t come across it before.
What is the MS hug?
The ‘MS hug’ is symptom of MS that feels like an uncomfortable, sometimes painful feeling of tightness or pressure, usually around your stomach or chest. The pain or tightness can stretch all around the chest or stomach, or it can be just on one side. The MS hug can feel different from one person to another. It’s also known as banding or girdling, but people describe their MS hug in all kinds of ways to help others understand it, including their MS team.
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.
How long does an MS hug last?
An MS hug usually lasts for a few seconds or minutes, but it can last for hours or even longer. MS hugs can be unpredictable, tiring and stressful.
Is the MS hug dangerous?
The MS hug isn’t dangerous. But you should 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?
There are two different effects of MS that might cause or trigger 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.
How to manage the MS Hug?
People with MS use lots of different things to help with the MS hug. Just like other MS symptoms, you might not be able to get rid of it completely, but you might find ways to stop it happening so often, or manage it better when it does. You might need to try lots of things to find what works best for you. Things that could help with the MS hug include:
- looking for possible triggers
- wearing loose or tight clothes
- moving or stretching
- applying hot or cold
- physiotherapy or other physical treatments
- relaxation, mindfulness and CBT
- drug treatments
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. An MS hug could be triggered by fatigue, changes in temperature, eating a large meal, being unwell, or getting stressed. Not everyone finds what triggers their MS hug, 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.
Physical 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). Find out more in our information on managing pain and unpleasant sensations.
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
Find out more in our information on managing pain and unpleasant sensations.
Drug treatments for the MS hug
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.
Some people prefer to call it the ‘MS squeeze’ because it’s certainly not a friendly hug.
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.
Find out more about describing these sensations to your doctor in our information on managing pain and unpleasant sensations.