What Is the Multiple Sclerosis Hug?

The hug of multiple sclerosis is one of the most feared episodes by patients. Find out how it manifests itself and what you should do if you develop it.
What Is the Multiple Sclerosis Hug?

Written by Josberth Johan Benitez Colmenares, 05 July, 2021

Last update: 05 July, 2021

Multiple sclerosis is characterized by very disjointed symptoms. Damage to the central nervous system causes different reactions that the sufferer can’t predict. As a result, they’ll suffer fear, anxiety, and even panic attacks. Today, we’ll focus on one of the strangest: multiple sclerosis hug.

The multiple sclerosis hug is an informal term that patients use to describe a feeling of tightness in the chest. Not everyone develops it and everyone experiences it differently. It can last a few minutes or even several hours, and so development is inconsistent. Let’s see what experts know about it and how we can treat it.

The symptoms of the multiple sclerosis hug

The multiple sclerosis hug is complex
Symptoms of multiple sclerosis can span multiple organs and systems, due to damage to multiple nerve structures.

As the Multiple Sclerosis Society UK points out, the multiple sclerosis hug feels like a tight feeling around the chest or upper stomach.

Some describe it as wearing a girdle or ring in this area, one that squeezes and creates discomfort. Since their descriptions are very varied, we’ll have a look at some of the manifestations:

  • A crushing sensation in the back and front of the torso, as if you were in a compression machine.
  • A burning feeling with small fluctuations of very cold or hot temperatures.
  • Tingling that forms an almost perfect circle around the chest.
  • Numbness under the skin around your torso.

Many patients point out that it’s like wearing an elastic band very tight to the height of the chest, one that may or may not cause pain, according to your movements. It can develop without warning and last a matter of seconds or extend for several hours or days.

Not all patients develop it and those who do can go through states of remission that can last several years.

It’s a symptom that doesn’t appear much in medical literature, although, as we’ll see below, it can have several explanations. What you do need to know, however, is that it isn’t a dangerous sign.

Some people often panic when they experience it for the first time, fearing that the contraction will suffocate them or affect their heart. We can assure you that this won’t happen, although you have to learn to deal with it if you suffer from this symptom frequently.

Causes of the multiple sclerosis hug

There are several theories that attempt to explain why MS hug occurs. First of all, you need to know that this symptom isn’t exclusive to the disease. Other conditions that can trigger it are the following:

  • Transverse myelitis – which develops through the inflammation of the spinal cord. Researchers note that it causes neurological deficits such as autonomic dysfunction, sensory loss, and weakness.
  • Costochondritis: This manifests as an inflammation of the ribs or joints of the anterior chest wall. Evidence indicates that it’s a benign condition, although it may be accompanied by pain.

These are just two conditions that can emulate a feeling of pressure in the chest area, although others such as cardiovascular problems are also possible.

We wanted to highlight this, because many people informally associate hugging as a characteristic and unique symptom of multiple sclerosis. If you haven’t been diagnosed and you experience it, it doesn’t mean that you have the disease.

Having clarified this, and following the advice of Multiple Sclerosis Trust UK, the sign can be explained by two main triggers:

Muscle spasms

Muscle spasms are a classic symptom of multiple sclerosis. Their prevalence is widely documented, so much so that experts estimate that it can affect up to 20% of patients.

It’s often accompanied by stiffness and what we know as spasticity. When all this is concentrated in the chest area it can trigger the sensation that we know as the multiple sclerosis hug.

Spasms are usually triggered by an external factor – sudden changes in temperature, pressure, infections, tight clothing, stress, or posture problems.

Dysesthesia

Dysesthesia brings together a series of heterogeneous symptoms related to abnormal sensations. The Multiple Sclerosis Association of America lists it, along with paresthesia, hyperpathia, and anesthesia, as one of the types of numbness that can develop in the course of the disease. Dysesthesia can cause pain, although it’s generally very controllable and, of course, harmless.

A study published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal in June 2021 suggests that rapid forward flexion can lead to circumferential dysesthesia. This is characterized by a ring-shaped electrical sensation that surrounds the waist or chest area. Sudden changes in movement could, therefore, trigger the multiple sclerosis hug.

Apart from these two explanations, stress, fatigue and permanent immobility can also be responsible. If it’s the first time that you experience it, you should go to the specialist to find the true cause and thus seek a solution.

How is it treated?

Multiple sclerosis hug has treatment
Many of the medications used routinely to control the disease can be helpful in the multiple sclerosis hug.

There’s no specific treatment for the multiple sclerosis hug, as the hidden mechanism behind it isn’t very well understood.

If the specialist determines that the symptoms are directly connected with the disease, they may prescribe some drugs such as Zanaflex (tizanidine), Valium (diazepam), Lyrica (pregabalin) or Cymbalta (duloxetine); muscle relaxants, antispastics, antispasmodics, and antidepressants, respectively.

They may also suggest the use of home techniques to reverse the sensation when it occurs unexpectedly. For example:

  • Applying cold/heat to the area.
  • Applying pressure with your hands or wearing a girdle to counteract the sensation.
  • Wearing loose clothing.
  • Avoiding being immobile for a long time to reduce its prevalence.
  • Performing deep breathing exercises.
  • Getting massages in the most affected areas.

Since each case is different, it’s difficult to determine which treatment is most effective. For this reason, it’s advisable to go to the specialist during the first “hug”, so that they can monitor how long it lasts, how it manifests itself, and what treatment is able to relieve it.

The important thing to know is that it will never endanger your life, nor does it mean that the disease is progressing towards a chronic stage. More than half of those diagnosed experience this sign. It’s good for you to be aware that it exists and what you should do if you manifest it.

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  • Honig LS, Wasserstein PH, Adornato BT. Tonic spasms in multiple sclerosis. Anatomic basis and treatment. West J Med. 1991 Jun;154(6):723-6.
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  • Reder AT. Thoracic flexion provokes circumferential dysesthesia: A symptom of thoracic cord lesions in MS. Mult Scler. 2021 Jun;27(7):1008-1013.