The Hug We Don’t Want, The “MS Hug”

When you think of the word “hug”, usually warm fuzzy feelings come to mind. However, when is MSers think of the word hug, we think of something very different. We think of a squeezing, crushing or burning sensation that is felt in the middle of our body. Not very warm and fuzzy, now is it?

What is, The “Hug”?

So what really is the dreaded “MS hug”? It is a type of pain felt by individuals with MS that can be located in various areas of the body. It can be felts as low as around the waist to as high as the neck and can be felt all around the body or on one side or the other. As many other symptoms, it can be felt in a variety of ways including as pressure, a crushing feeling, constricting feeling, tingling, burning, a dull ache or sharp pain. This pain can last for seconds or minutes or hours or it can last for days at a time.
Often times this pain is brought on by stress, heat or fatigue (what’s new). If this sounds pretty awful, you’re right, it is. I can be pretty uncomfortable and pretty scary at the same time. It can lead to difficulty breathing and feeling like you’re about to have a heart attack.

The Cause

So why is this happening? Is this just another “just because” thing that we have to deal with? Not really. We do have to deal with it, but thankfully we know what causes it. The MS Hug and it’s wonderful array of feelings are caused by spasms in the intercostal muscles, which are located between your ribs. If higher muscles are spasming, then you will feel the sensations higher in your chest, and if lower muscles are spasming then you will feel the sensations more towards your waist. And of course, these muscle spasms are caused by lesions on the spinal cord.

The Treatment

First, any chest pain that you’re experiencing should be taken seriously. If you think it’s a heart attack, go get medical attention. Please. Thank you. 
Second, once you’ve determined that it is in fact, MS related pain there are several things you can do to help. Wearing loose clothing, deep breathing, using a heating pad can all be beneficial. If you experience your MS hug as acute pain or burning, you can try this: laying flat, applying pressure to the area that hurts with your hands or even wrapping your body with an ace bandage. This may seem counter intuitive, but it helps your brain change the sensations from pain into pain-free pressure. Remember when you would hurt your knee, and you would put a brace on it and it would feel better? Same thing.
If these lifestyle suggestions don’t work, there are medications you can try. However, this type of pain is still pretty tricky to treat. Although it seems like this pain is the result of a muscle spasm and would be easy to treat, the actual cause of this pain is neurological (remember the lesions?). Treating neurological pain is still pretty tough, (I think we all know that by now). But some medications that are used to treat this pain are anti-spasticity (diazepam) medications, anticonvulsant (gabapentin) medications and antidepressant (amitriptyline) medications.
Most of us MSers have had to deal with some sort of pain during our time with this disease. One of the most helpful things that I have found to help manage my pain has been connection. Talking about how my pain affects my day-to-day life seems to take the burden off just a little bit, just enough to make it bearable.
What helps you when the pain gets to you?
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