While some amount of pain is normal to experience when you're working out, especially when building muscle in a specific area like the abdominals, a chronic pain in your side can be a nuisance and can make it difficult to enjoy the benefits of exercise. Discomfort on the side of your body between your upper abdomen and your back while exercising could be attributed to a variety of factors.
One common cause of an ache in your side while exercising is a muscle cramp. A cramp is an involuntary and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. Cramps can affect any muscle under your voluntary control, and cramps along the ribcage and in the abdomen are quite common, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Possible causes of muscle cramps include inadequate stretching, poor conditioning, exercising outdoors in intense heat, dehydration and depletion of salt and minerals. A muscle cramp can last a few seconds to 15 minutes or longer and may recur multiple times before it goes away. Proper stretching and warming up before beginning exercise and keeping yourself adequately hydrated before and during a workout can help prevent cramping.
While muscle cramping can occur in any sport, side stitches are specific cramps that often plague runners and swimmers. Side stitches, also called exercise-related transient abdominal pain, are caused by a spasm of the diaphragm muscle. It is estimated that 70 percent of regular runners have suffered from a side stitch in the last 12 months, according to The Stretching Institute.
Effective treatments for side stitches include altering your breathing pattern, concentrating on breathing deeply, properly warming up before exercising and gradually increasing in intensity. Other tips to prevent getting side stitches are avoiding eating before exercising, drinking more fluids and strengthening your core muscles.
Muscle Pulls or Tears
While cramps and side stitches are common reasons for your side to hurt while exercising, don't rule out a muscle pull or tear, especially if you take the preventative measures listed above to avoid cramps and are still experiencing pain. Abdominal side strain is a clinical diagnosis characterized by sudden onset of pain and tenderness over the ribcage.
If you suspect a muscle tear, see your doctor right away for a diagnosis. If a tear is detected, you will likely be ordered to stop exercising the muscle and follow the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) treatment until the muscle tear heals.
Another possible cause of your side hurting during exercise is a rib fracture, especially if you recently suffered an accident or trauma to the chest area. Symptoms of a cracked or broken rib include pain when you take a deep breath and pain that gets worse when you press on the injured area or you bend or twist your body. The Mayo Clinic advises seeing your doctor if you have a tender spot in your rib and pain is present with deep breaths or your breathing is hindered.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; Muscle Cramp; May 2010
- The Stretching Institute; Side Stitches and Exercise Related Abdominal Pain; Brad Walker; April 2011
- "American Journal of Roentgenology"; Side Strain: A Tear of Internal Oblique Musculature; David A. Connell, et al.; December 2003
- MayoClinic.com; Broken Ribs; March 2011