What is the MS hug?

The MS hug may sound cosy, but it can actually be very frightening to those who experience it. Also known as girdling or banding, the pain can range from a mild ache to intense pain in the chest or ribs, feeling like you have a tight band around your middle, anywhere between the waist and neck. For some people the pain is just on one side. As the pain is located in the chest area, it can be painful to breathe. 

Some PwMS experience these feelings wrapped tight around their head or in their feet or hands, making it feel as though they are wearing permanent boots or gloves. 

People describe the sensation differently from pressure to severe pain, or from burning to a tickle. The duration of an MS hug can range from long-lasting to fast and fleeting. 

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MS hug symptoms

Damage caused by MS means that messages from nerves are disrupted or blocked. The MS hug happens when the intercostal muscles —  small muscles between your ribs — go into spasm. These muscles help to expand your chest for you to breathe, so when they go into spasm your chest tightens.  

Nerve pain called dysaesthesia (which means ‘not a normal sensation’) can be experienced in many different ways, such as crawling, stabbing, pins and needles, burning or aching. 

What can I do if I have the MS hug?

If you experience any pain in the chest area you need to go straight to see a doctor. If it is sudden-onset, severe pain and you are having trouble breathing, you need to go to the accident and emergency department at your local hospital so they can rule out serious heart or lung problems. 

If you are experiencing other MS symptoms at the same time as the MS hug, you could be having a relapse, so consult with your doctor or MS nurse to find out what pain relief and management they advise. 

The MS hug can feel worse if you are anxious, stressed, fatigued or you have an infection. It can also feel worse if you are heat-sensitive, so if this is the case, you need to keep cool.  

How is the MS hug treated?

Fortunately there is help out there. As many people experience the MS hug in various ways, different treatments work for different people. However,  there are some things which will often help.

Applying pressure on the area of the MS hug can sometimes help. Some PwMS find that wearing tight clothing can provide the mind with a reason for the muscle tightness and this tricks the brain into accepting the feelings. A bandage or scarf around the chest can also help in this way. If your hands and feet are affected, then try wearing gloves and boots. 

Alternatively, loose clothing can help others deal with the MS hug. They may feel more relaxed and able to breathe with clothing in a larger size than they would normally wear. 

The Overcoming MS Program includes meditation to reduce feelings of anxiety or depression due to the pain. An exercise routine will help strengthen your muscles and improve your physical and mental health. The Overcoming MS community provides advice, friendship and encouragement, helping you to become more resilient and lean on the community in times when you feel overwhelmed. There is so much that is within your control to feel better. 


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