What is a Multiple Sclerosis “Hug”?

MS Pain at the Waist and Ribs

Man lying on bed with back pain
Getty Images/Brand New Images

Multiple sclerosis pain can be felt in strange places. One of the weirdest pain-related symptoms is the MS "hug" or girdle-band sensation. Up to 75% of people with MS will experience pain as a symptom, but statistics on the MS hug are difficult to find.

The “MS hug” is a type of pain that can come and go over the course of several weeks, and range from an annoying pressure to abject pain. It sometimes can travel as high as the chest or as low as the waistline.

It is sometimes very localized on one side, and at other times it can wrap around all the entire torso. It tends to be one of the most annoying and painful symptoms that MS patients experience.

Whoever coined the term “MS hug” must have: a) never experienced this symptom; or b) had a really bad sense of humor. In my family, we refer to the feeling as the “grippies, “ which is more descriptive and less cloying, anyway.

What Medical Tests Will be Performed?

If you haven't been diagnosed with MS yet, going to the doctor with these symptoms can yield the following diagnoses:

Your neurologist may want to run an MRI to see if you are having an exacerbation. Often, tests are also done to rule out other things, such as heart problems, gallbladder problems, lung disease, gastrointestinal disorders or inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs.

What Causes the MS Hug?

It is caused by a lesion on the spinal cord and is technically classified as a neuropathic pain called a “paresthesia,” which refers to any abnormal sensation. The sensation itself is the result of tiny muscles between each rib (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, it's because of nerve damage.

What Does It Feel Like?

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 day. It 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
  • Focused in one small area (usually on one side or in the back) or go all the way around the torso
  • Worse when fatigued or stressed
  • Present in “waves” lasting seconds, minutes or hours or can be steady for longer periods of time
  • Described as sharp pain, dull pain, burning pain, tickling, tingling, a crushing or constricting sensation or intense pressure

Some people experience difficulty breathing or painful breathing, so severe that it is often perceived as a heart attack or panic attack.

How to Find Relief From a MS Hug

First of all, any chest pain has to be taken seriously because it can signal that a condition that needs immediate medical attention like heart problems; especially if you experience any of these signs of a heart attack.

 So, really evaluate whether what you are experiencing is a result of your MS or not. 

Secondly, sit or lie down so that you are comfortable. Now, breathe and relax; tense muscles aren't going to help the situation. If this doesn't help, some people find that a warm bath or heat pad helps. Drug treatments are available if the hug is really persistent. Or you use there MS Hug Tips.

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