Have you experienced the MS hug?


The MS hug sounds like some kind of corny charity initiative to hug people with multiple sclerosis (which, granted, would be an odd campaign!). In reality, it’s the name given to a collection of debilitating symptoms caused by the spasming of the intercostal muscles.

What is the MS hug?

MS is an autoimmune condition caused by the immune system attacking the protective cover of nerves. That damage can result in a whole host of symptoms, from double vision to mobility issues. And it can also cause neuropathic pain - one form of which is known as the MS Hug.

Neuropathic pain is pain caused by damage to the nervous system. In this case, the pain is located in the muscles between your ribs and it gets its name from the way the pain wraps itself around your body like a hug or girdle (the spasms are sometimes called MS girdling). The tightness around the chest is caused by spasms in the intercostal muscles which help your chest to expand while breathing.

The sensation can last from seconds to hours and while some people will be in pain, others notice more of a pressure around their waist, torso or neck.

Symptoms can include:

  • squeezing
  • crushing
  • crawling feeling under the skin
  • burning sensation
  • pins and needles

It’s worth saying that as with everything to do with MS, everyone’s experience will be unique - there’s no set pain or sensation threshold or tick list.

Why does it happen?

Heat, stress and fatigue tend to be the typical triggers for MS symptoms, including the MS hug. Sometimes it might come on as part of a relapse so if you do start to clock symptoms, get in touch with your MS nurse or neurologist ASAP. 

While it can be alarming if these symptoms come out of nowhere, remember that the MS hug is quite common - especially in people with a relatively new diagnosis.

Treatment

Things you can do yourself:

  • rest more when you feel the pain coming on.
  • change your clothing. Some people find loose clothing helps while others believe that by creating an understandable cause for the feeling of tightness, the brain is able to accept the sensation better. To do this, they might wear tight garments around the chest, a glove on the affected hand or boots if your legs and feet are affected.
  • cooling off if you’re feeling warm, have been in warm weather or have been exercising.
  • try mindfulness or meditation techniques to de-stress.

As over-the-counter painkillers often fail to remedy nerve pain, your GP may be able to prescribe you with diazepam, gabapentin or amitriptyline - all medications which the National MS Society say are approved for treating MS hug nerve pain. 

Your neurologist and MS nurse are the best people to talk to about managing your MS hug symptoms. They may refer you to a pain clinic or be able to offer you a more suitable combination of pain relief.

How to talk about your symptoms to your MS nurse or neurologist

As with all MS symptoms, it’s important to be able to communicate how you’re feeling to your MS team.

The MS Trust has put together eight great points which you can think about when preparing for your appointment. Keep a diary record of how you feel which you can refer to you at your appointment. It’s always easier when you have a script to go on!

Think about whether the feeling:

  • comes in short or long lasting bursts or is there all the time
  • is sharp or dull
  • feels painful, aching, burning, tight or like a pressure?
  • is relieved by changes you have made like tighter or looser clothing or by applying heat or cold
  • started suddenly or increased bit by bit
  • started at the same time as other new symptoms or when previous symptoms came back quite suddenly
  • has happened before? When? Does it feel the same?
  • is stopping you doing what you’d like to do? Give some examples such as it’s affecting your sleep, work or ability to move freely. It is good to say exactly what’s happening, for example, it takes you two hours to get to sleep or you can only sit still for 20 minutes at a time.

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 8 June 2020
Next review: 8 June 2020