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What is the MS hug?

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The MS hug

The MS hug sounds quite nice and cuddly – if you haven’t experienced it! Don't be fooled by the friendly name; the MS hug can be quite a shock if it happens to you. Jane from the MS Trust information team explains what it is and how you can deal with it. 

In practice, it may feel anything but friendly, cuddly, comforting or gentle. It’s a tight feeling, usually around your chest but sometimes around your hand, foot or head. It may feel so tight around the chest that you feel like it’s a bit difficult to breathe. Sometimes, it can squeeze you really hard and not let go in a hurry.

The MS hug is quite a common symptom of MS but is not well known, especially to people who have just been diagnosed. It’s probably worth being aware of the possibility so that you are not taken by surprise if this symptom happens to you. It is also known as banding or girdling.

The science bit

There may be a couple of different things going on here depending on what you are experiencing. The feeling of tightness around your chest can be due to spasms in the intercostal muscles between your ribs. Some people also get feelings of aching, stabbing, crawling or pins and needles. This is a kind of dysaesthesia (meaning “not normal sensation”) and is classed, medically, as a kind of pain. As with most things in MS, it’s all due to nerve damage.

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What can I do?

So what should you do if you get a band of tightness around your chest? First, think whether is it definitely due to your MS? Any chest pain has to be taken seriously just in case it has a cause that needs immediate medical attention like heart problems. Get checked out ASAP.

Secondly, relax and breath. This is easy to say but sometimes hard to do if you are being squeezed round the chest! However, it’s worth trying as being tensed up won’t help. Also, the symptoms usually pass without treatment so try and sit it out as comfortably as possible.

Some people find that a warm bath or heat pad helps. Drug treatments are available if the hug is really persistent, including those often used for other forms of dysaesthesia.

Wear a hat!

I’m not joking. Many people say that the best way to deal with the MS hug is to distract the brain from puzzling over the feeling of tightness. Although you can’t get rid of the tight feeling, giving the brain a good reason for the feeling can stop it focussing on the odd sensation and worrying about it. So, if it’s your head that has the MS hug, wear a hat! If it’s your chest, you could wear a close fitting top. Gloves, socks or boots may help with tight feelings in the hands or feet. However, some people say that wearing really loose clothing is better – give it a try and find out what’s best for you.

What helps with the MS hug?

“I found tight pressure was, weirdly, the best way to relieve it. I wrap a scarf tightly around where I feel the band of tightness.” – Claire
“Hot water helps me: boil it and drink plain once it’s not too hot.” – Subodha
“Some people say it is worse when they are fatigued, like many other symptoms.” – Nicki, MS nurse
“Sometimes changing position helps. Move around and see if it improves.” – Sarah and Jennie, MS nurses
“Tell your neurologist or MS nurse so they can discuss a management plan if it were to happen again.”– Lou, MS nurse
“Some people find wearing loose clothing helps, also distraction techniques. One patient finds using a TENS machine beneficial.”– Lesley, MS nurse
“Breathing exercises, yoga, distraction, a hot water bottle and a mild analgesia all can help. Also try to remember that it won’t last too long.” – Janice, MS nurse
“I always try to avoid medication where possible so I suggest tricks such as distraction, keeping mobile where possible, hot or cold packs, massage or loose clothes.”– Belinda, neurologist

What are relaxation and distraction techniques and how can you use them?

Many people find distraction and relaxation techniques useful to manage their pain. Relaxation can decrease stress and muscle tension which might exacerbate the pain. This might involve tensing and relaxing your muscle groups in turn, or using slow, rhythmic breathing exercises.
Distraction means turning your attention to something other than the pain. Distractions can be internal, such as counting, singing to yourself or praying, or they can be external, such as reading, needlework, model building, or painting. Listening to music can also be a good distraction method.

Have you experienced the MS hug? Tell us what it was like for you. Have you got any good tips for managing it? You can write your comments in the box below.

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