Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic and unpredictable disease of the central nervous system. Similar to an autoimmune condition, the body of an MS patient attacks itself. The target of the attacks is myelin, a substance that covers and protects the nerves throughout your body. The damage of myelin causes a long list of symptoms, ranging from double or blurry vision to mobility problems and slurred speech. One form of neurologic pain that can affect people with MS is referred to as the “MS hug.”
MS hug is a collection of symptoms caused by spasms in the intercostal muscles. These muscles are located in between your ribs. The muscles serve the dual purpose of holding your ribs in place and helping you move with flexibility and ease. The involuntary muscle spasms are also called girdling or MS girdle due to the location of the abnormal sensations. Symptoms can last for anywhere from a few seconds to hours at a time.
MS hug gets its name from certain sensations felt during an episode of muscle contractions. Some people report no pain, but a sense of tight pressure around the waist, torso, or neck. Others may experience a band of tingling or burning in the same area. Sharp, stabbing pain or dull, widespread aching are also possible symptoms of MS hug. Words often used to describe MS hug include:
- ants crawling under the skin
- hot or cold burning
- pins and needles
As with other symptoms of MS, girdling is unpredictable and does not present the same way in everyone who experiences it.
Heat, stress, and fatigue—all situations in which your body may not be running at 100 percent efficiency—are common triggers for MS symptoms, including MS hug. An increase in symptoms does not necessarily mean the disease has progressed, but is more of an indicator that you need more rest, must cool off, or treat a fever that’s increasing your body temperature, and should find a way to de-stress.
The MS hug gets its nickname from the way the pain, tingling, or pressure wraps itself around your body, as well as the fact that people who have MS often experience this particular symptom. Girdling, however, is not unique to multiple sclerosis. You might also experience symptoms consistent with the MS hug if you have other inflammatory conditions, such as transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord. Costochondritis, the inflammation of the cartilage that connects your ribs, can also trigger MS hug.
Although MS hug is the result of a muscle spasm, the pain you feel is neurologic in nature. In other words, it’s nerve pain, which can be difficult to resolve. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen are unlikely to bring the same kind of relief to burning pain as it does for a headache. Anti-spasticity muscle relaxant drugs such as baclofen and diazepam, however, are effective for easing muscle spasms and tightness in many people. Your doctor might also prescribe medications such as gabapentin and pregabalin designed to alleviate nerve pain.
Lifestyle adjustments and home remedies combined with medical treatment can help keep you comfortable during an MS hug episode. Wearing lightweight, flowing clothing rather than fitted garments might help you feel less constricted. The use of compression garments helps your nervous system translate the feelings of pain or burning into pain-free pressure, which may make you feel better. Some MS patients find warm compresses or a warm bath to help with MS hug symptoms. Alternative therapies for the MS hug include massage and deep breathing during an episode.
Multiple sclerosis is a lifelong condition—there is no known cure. Coping with unpredictable symptoms that impact your everyday life can be scary and intimidating. Although the MS hug is not a life-threatening symptom, it can be uncomfortable and it limits your mobility and independence. Speak to your team of medical professionals if the MS hug makes you feel discouraged or blue. Support groups can play a role in helping people with MS cope with their symptoms and live as healthy a life as possible.