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MS Hug

The MS hug is a tightening around the upper body. While this can be uncomfortable or even painful, there are treatments available to ease this symptom. 

Article medically reviewed by Karen Vernon an MS Nursing Specialist at Salford Royal Foundation Trust, UK.

The MS hug is one of the most common symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and although it might sound comforting and enjoyable, unfortunately, it can be anything but. MS hug is a spectrum of severity so some people have it much lighter than others. It doesn’t affect everyone. You might not experience it as a symptom, or it might only affect you on a minor level. But, for some MSers, the dreaded hug can cause pain and discomfort, and disrupt quality of life. 

Let’s learn more about the MS hug – what it is, what causes it, and what you can do to manage one of the most unwelcome of multiple sclerosis symptoms.

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What exactly is MS hug?

MS hug – often referred to as ‘the MS hug’ – is a symptom of multiple sclerosis that affects many people living with the condition, though not everyone. It’s best described as pressure or tightening around the upper body, especially in the chest area. The MS hug can also feel like pressure around your ribs, as low down as your waist, or around your back. Sometimes the hug involves the whole chest (all the way round) or it can be on one side. 

Some people feel like they’re being squeezed really tightly – hence the ‘hug’ name.

“I have this feeling of being squeezed round my ribs and sometimes I’m having to take in a deep breath as I feel short of breath.” @Kerrymcg
“Usually feels like someone has stuck a belt around your ribcage and it’s giving your lungs a good squeeze.” @LookWoolly

If you’re experiencing pain or discomfort around the chest area, it’s important that you contact your GP, so they can check you over. Don’t assume that chest pain is a result of MS hug. Something else could be causing the chest pain, so seek the advice of a doctor or nurse. A sudden onset of MS hug can be frightening – especially if you haven’t experienced it before – so don’t ignore it.

What causes MS hug?

MS hug is usually caused by muscle spasms, and/or a sensation called dysesthesia, which can also feel like burning or numbness. Nerve damage can lead to dysesthesia, which is why it’s often triggered for someone living with multiple sclerosis. Dysesthesia can also lead to one of the other many common MS symptoms called Lhermitte’s sign, which affects the neck, and the spine.

What actually brings on MS hug is not completely known, and can differ from person to person (if they experience MS hug at all). Some people report that stress, anxiety and doing too much, physically, can lead to an MS hug. Indeed, chest pain can be a symptom of anxiety and so it’s not unusual for an occurrence of MS hug to be confused with a stress condition.

"Would it be fair to say that the hospital doctors, brilliant as they are, don't know what MS Hug is and therefore they blame stress?"  @TheQuietLady

Is MS hug permanent?

Thankfully, MS hug isn’t permanent, but how long it lasts differs for everyone who experiences it. It may be a brief, uncomfortable sensation that lasts for a few seconds or minutes, or be a more intense pain for a much longer period - even several hours. Some MSers have reported a hug lasting weeks.

MS hug can come and go suddenly, with no warning. If you suffer from it regularly and repeatedly, you may be able to make a note of habits or behaviour leading up to an attack to see if you can identify what causes it.

How does MS hug affect you?

MS hug affects everyone differently. In the most serious of cases, it can be quite debilitating. Some people might experience difficulty breathing or a feeling of being out of breath. This can make walking even short distances a challenge, and have a negative impact on your daily lifestyle. Moving around may just be too uncomfortable.

If you’re experiencing MS hug during the night, it’s likely to disrupt the quality and quantity of your sleep. This, in turn, can lead to fatigue and tiredness.

“MS hug started waking me up with abdominal spasms and the only way I could and still can deal with this is to sleep in a sitting up position - not ideal for sleep.”
“Does an MS hug feel like you can’t breathe or struggle to take breaths? I just thought I was unfit.” @Msbooklover

 How can MS Hug be treated?

MS hug is unpleasant at best, painful at worst, but, like most MS symptoms, can be treated to help manage the impact it has on you. Often, MS hug simply passes and goes away after a time. However, if it occurs more regularly, and lasts long enough to be a real problem, you should seek further medical advice.

Painkillers, such as ibuprofen, can help to reduce the pain caused by MS hug; using an ice-pack can also provide some much-needed relief. If the hug is associated with dysesthesia - an unusual sensation, a bit like prickling or burning, which can be painful -  you might be prescribed medication for neuropathic pain. Wearing loose clothing over the affected area can help if the dysesthesia is triggered by clothing.

Other options are more holistic. Because stress and anxiety are thought to contribute to MS hug developing, breathing exercises might help, as well as exercises such as yoga and pilates.

“I've taken up yoga recently and have found it really helpful for reducing anxiety, particularly the breathing exercises. I used to do tai chi which had a similar benefit.” @Hels99

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