A woman with a snake wrapped around her waist

The Hug You Do Not Want

Last updated: April 2023

When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I did what many people living with MS (PLwMS) do. I read as much as possible and I learned about various symptoms. Among them was this mysterious thing called the MS hug. Hmmm. It sounded highly uncomfortable and something I wanted to avoid. As if one could avoid involuntary symptoms of the disease. It would not be too long before I got to experience it firsthand.

Jumping out of bed

I was at the end of a fairly usual day. I had not done any strenuous activity and I was not tired. I was lying down in preparation to go to sleep. As I lay there, I had a strange sensation. My midsection was starting to feel tight. It was somewhat like a charley horse. As it began to tighten, I had to get out of bed. Once I was out of bed I felt it happening slowly.

My MS hug symptoms

Starting from the area just underneath my breast, my muscles started to tighten. I could feel rows of muscles squeezing. While I stood there leaning against an armoire, I felt what I can only describe as a snake squeezing my abdomen. Around and around it kept going. I suddenly had an appreciation for the victims of a king cobra. I could identify with the slow and painful sensation of having the life squeezed out of me. I knew immediately that I was having the dreaded MS hug. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed my prescribed muscle relaxant. I hoped that it would help me. After nearly 20 minutes I was able to lie back down and go to sleep.

Doctor's orders

The next morning I contacted my neurologist's office to let them know about that night. I had never experienced this degree of pain before. Having watched nature programs, I was familiar with seeing snakes squeezing their victims. I explained my pain in those terms. Even though it was clear to me that it was an MS hug, it was my neurologist who confirmed this diagnosis.

I knew that this was not an uncommon multiple sclerosis symptom, but I assumed that it would bypass me. I had not had even a scintilla of abdominal pain before, and I was already taking a muscle relaxant for the spasticity in my arms. After a brief discussion, we decided to increase my baclofen dose as a way to preempt the muscle contractions. For the most part, it works.

MS hug triggers

My first experience with the MS hug seemed to come out of the blue. I could not recall doing anything in particular to trigger it. In the succeeding years, I have found that I have an activity or two that can bring on a hugging session. Any movements that involve bending down or turning too far can cause my stomach muscles to react. This is especially true if I have not warmed up that morning by stretching. It is much like what goes on when I have not taken the time to straighten out before going on a walk.

Activities or movements that involve my abdomen have to be done carefully and thoughtfully. I need to make sure that I have taken the time to do my morning exercises and to gently extend those muscles. I do not always take the time to do this and I can usually get away with it. However, there are times when I start to move the wrong way and I feel a twinge coming on. At that point, I stop the movement right away and wait to see if I need to take an extra dose of muscle relaxant. This has become my go-to solution to the MS hug when stretching did not do the trick.

Living with the threat of an MS hug has become a normal part of being a PLwMS. All I can do is try to prevent the hug by keeping my abdominal muscles warmed up and taking my medication when it does happen.

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