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Running and Severe Upper Abdominal Pain

by
author image Solomon Branch
Solomon Branch specializes in nutrition, health, acupuncture, herbal medicine and integrative medicine. He has a B.A. in English from George Mason University, as well as a master's degree in traditional Chinese medicine.
Running and Severe Upper Abdominal Pain
Abdominal pain is a common phenomenon in endurance runners. Photo Credit Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

Abdominal pain is a common phenomenon in runners, particularly endurance runners. Rice University reports that studies on endurance runners have shown up to 50 percent of them experienced some form of abdominal pain while running. A variety of causes can lead to upper abdominal pain, but in many cases taking simple self-care measures can prevent the pain. If you continue to experience upper abdominal pain while running, or if it occurs when you are not running, consult a doctor.

Stitches

A common cause of upper abdominal pain in athletes, particularly runners, cyclists and horseback riders, is the side stitch. Stitches are characterized by pain in the upper abdominal area, just below the rib cage. The pain is usually felt on the right side of the body but can be experienced on the left or both sides simultaneously. Severe stitches are felt as a sharp, stabbing pain, similar to a muscle cramp. To treat a stitch, slow your pace when running and massage or place pressure on the affected area until the pain goes away. Bending forward at the waist might also help. The exact cause of stitches is not clear, but dehydration, eating a large meal too soon before running, erratic breathing patterns, muscle fatigue and not being physically fit are all contributing factors.

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Abdominal Strain

Small tears in the abdominal muscles are known as a strain. Strains often have an acute onset of pain, but the tears themselves are usually the result of long-term stress to the muscles. Common causes of abdominal strains are overexertion, improper form when running, not stretching, weak back muscles or lack of conditioning. The pain is usually worse upon movement, and you might experience muscle spasms, stiffness or pain when touching the affected area. Strains are often mild and treatable by rest, icing the affected area and taking anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen. Abdominal strains can take up to six weeks to heal in mild to moderate cases. If taking self-care measures doesn't reduce the pain from a strain after two days, consult a doctor.

Digestive Issues

Running hinders the digestive process because it moves blood away from the intestines to the outer extremities, so eating a hard-to-digest food, such as beans, or one you have a sensitivity to prior to running might lead to upper abdominal pain. Similar results can occur if you have an underlying gastrointestinal issue, such as Crohn's disease, GERD, a hiatal hernia or gastritis. In addition to pain, other common symptoms of digestive issues include gas, bloating, nausea, belching, diarrhea and indigestion.

Prevention

Taking steps to watch your diet and running habits may help prevent strains, stitches and certain digestive issues. Warming up before running and gently stretching your abdominal muscles can help keep them flexible and strong. Eat a full meal at least two to four hours before running to allow for proper digestion. Include mostly carbohydrates with some protein and little or no fat. Avoid problem foods and substances, including caffeine, high doses of vitamin C, carbonated drinks, and foods high in sugar, fiber and fat. Stay hydrated before, during and after running, but avoid drinking large amounts of water before running; too much water in your system can cause cramping. Strengthen your abdominal and back muscles outside of running to build endurance. Take smooth even breaths while running and slow your pace if your breathing becomes too heavy. Pace yourself and avoid overexertion. If taking preventive measures doesn't get rid of the upper abdominal pain while running, consult a doctor.

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