What Is a Multiple Sclerosis Hug?

MS Pain at the Waist and Ribs

Man having pain on his side
Jan-Otto/iStockphoto

Multiple sclerosis pain can be felt in strange places. Perhaps, one of the oddest pain-related symptoms is the MS "hug" or girdle-band sensation.

The “MS hug” is a type of pain that can come and go over the course of several weeks, and ranges from an annoying pressure to abject pain. It sometimes can travel as high as the chest or as low as the waistline. In addition, its location may vary, sometimes felt only on one side, and at other times it can wrap around all the entire torso.

All in all, it tends to be one of the most annoying and painful symptoms that MS patients experience.

Diagnosing the MS Hug

If you haven't been diagnosed with MS yet, going to the doctor with symptoms similar to the MS Hug, requires a thorough workup, as a number of other health conditions can mimic it.

For example, the MS hug can be similar to chest pain, so before it can be deemed simply "MS-related," a doctor would want to rule out serious causes like a heart attack.

Other health conditions that need to be ruled out include:

  • Gallbladder disease
  • Stomach or intestinal infection
  • Lung disease
  • Inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs (called costochondritis)
  • Panic attack

If other causes have been ruled out, your neurologist may want to order an MRI to see if you are having an MS relapse, as you may need steroids if your symptoms are severe or debilitating.

Symptoms of the MS Hug

Like many MS symptoms, the “MS hug” feels different for different people.

It also feels different in the same people on different days or at different times of the day.

For instance, the pain can be as low as the waist or as high as the chest. Rarely, it can be felt as high as the shoulders and neck. In addition, the pain can be focused in one small area (usually on one side or in the back) or go all the way around the torso.

It can occur in "waves" lasting seconds, minutes, or hours or can be steady for longer periods of time.

The pain of an MS Hug has been described in many unique ways as well, including:

  • Sharp
  • Dull
  • Burning
  • Tickling
  • Tingling
  • Crushing or constricting
  • Pressure

Finally, the pain (like other symptoms of MS) can intensify or be triggered by fatigue or stress. It can also be associated with other symptoms like difficulty breathing or painful breathing, which is why it may be perceived as a heart attack or panic attack.

Causes of an MS Hug

The MS Hug is caused by a lesion or an area of active inflammation within the spinal cord. This means that the myelin sheath (the coating that insulates nerve fibers) has been damaged. The type of pain caused by the MS Hug is technically classified as a neuropathic type of pain, also called a “dysesthesia,” which refers to any painful sensation.

The sensation itself is the result of tiny muscles between each rib (called intercostal muscles) going into spasm. These muscles have the job of holding our ribs together, as well as keeping them flexible and aiding in movement, like forced expiration. But like everything related to MS, the root cause of the MS Hug has to do with damage to the myelin sheath.

How to Find Relief From the MS Hug

First of all, any chest pain has to be taken seriously. Be sure to seek immediate medical attention if you experience chest pain or other signs of a heart attack

If your doctor determines that you are indeed experiencing MS-related pain, there are some MS Hug tips that can help ease your discomfort like deep breathing exercises, taking a warm bath, or using a heating pad. Sometimes, medications are needed as well, like a muscle relaxant or a medication that eases neuropathic pain like Lyrica (pregabalin) or Neurontin (gabapentin).

A Word From Verywell

It's interesting to note that years ago, people thought MS was a painless disease, even doctors.

Now we know that this is not true. In fact, research shows that about half of people with MS experience pain at some point in their disease course. Besides the MS hug, other types of pain include trigeminal neuralgia, abnormal sensations in the legs and feet, and Lhermitte's sign.

Sources:

Drulovic J et al. The prevalence of pain in adults with multiple sclerosis: A multicenter cross-sectional survey. Pain Med. 2015 Aug;16(8):1597-602.

National MS Society. Pain: Overview.

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