What is the MS hug?

25 September 2023

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. Here we explain what it is and how you can deal with it. 

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. It is sometimes known as banding or girdling.

The MS hug is quite a common symptom of multiple sclerosis 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.

What causes the MS hug?

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.

How long will the MS hug last?

MS hug symptoms usually pass without treatment so try to relax and sit it out as comfortably as possible. Most people find that the MS hug lasts for a few minutes, but it can persist for several hours.

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 if your pain is around the ribs or chest and does not ease off within a few minutes.

What can I do to fix the MS hug?

If you can, relax and breathe. 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 tense won’t help.

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.

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.

Relaxation can decrease stress and muscle tension which might exacerbate the pain of an MS hug. Try listening to music or using slow, rhythmic breathing exercises. 

Some people manage the MS hug by turning their 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. 

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, person with MS

Tips from health professionals

We asked some MS nurses for their top tips for managing the MS hug. Here's what they told us:

  • The MS hug is often worse when you're fatigued, so bear that in mind and pace yourself through your day.
  • Sometimes changing position helps. Move around and see if it improves.
  • Tell your neurologist or MS nurse so they can discuss a management plan if it were to happen again.
  • A TENS machine can be beneficial for some people. 
  • Also try to remember that it won’t usually last too long.

Find out more

  • MS hug : Our A-Z about the MS hug.
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