A cramp in the ribcage, or side stitch, can occur when you've been sedentary and start training. Fit individuals can also develop side stitches when they boost the intensity of their exercises. As you grow stronger and more accustomed to your fitness regimen, side stitches should naturally disappear. While stretching can help to relieve side stitches, core exercises can strengthen the muscles around your ribs and help prevent cramping during exercise.
The Diaphragm or the Obliques
Your diaphragm separates your chest cavity and lungs from your abdomen. When you breathe, your diaphragm contracts and expands. During rigorous exercise, these contractions grow more pronounced. If your diaphragm is overexerting itself, it can start to spasm and lead to side stitches. In another situation, your diaphragm may be functioning normally but the strain of breathing hard can cause the muscles to the sides of your diaphragm -- the obliques -- to spasm. It may be that not enough blood reaches the muscles responsible for respiration during rigorous exercise. Some people get side stitches after drinking juice or eating just prior to a workout. However, the exact cause of side stitches remains unknown. Once you feel the cramp under your ribs, reduce the intensity of your exercise and wait for the side stitches to subside. If the cramping continues, stop exercising.
Stretching for Relief
In the same way that a swimmer gently stretches a cramped calf muscle during a workout, you may be able to relieve a side stitch with a stretch. If the cramp is on your right side, raise your right arm overhead and place your right hand on the back of your head. You can continue to exercise, but hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds and allow the knots under your ribs to loosen. Although not an exercise, you can also apply pressure on the pain point, pushing down on the cramped area with your hand. Slowly bend forward or backward, keeping the pressure on the side stitch until the pain disappears.
Build a First Line of Defense
Exercises that may prevent side stitches involve warming up your diaphragm before a workout and strengthening your core. Before a workout, sit on the floor and put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Inhale deeply, filling your lungs to full capacity. Exhale until you run out of air. Watch your hands rise and fall for a few breathing cycles. By strengthening your core muscles -- particularly your obliques -- your body is better equipped to handle changes in exercise intensity. There are numerous core exercises, including forward and side planks, standard and wrist-to-knee crunches and trunk rotations. For example, sit on the floor with your knees bent. Hold a weight plate or medicine ball in front of you with arms extended. Lean back so your body forms a 45-degree angle to the ground. Exhale and rotate your arms as far to the right as possible while keeping your lower body still. Hold the peak position for three seconds and then return to center. Continue rotating your torso from side to side for 30 reps.
When Cramping Is Chronic
If the cramping under your ribs persists or grows worse, touch base with your doctor. Chronic cramping can be a sign of exercise-induced bronchospasm, which impacts up to 90 percent of people with asthma and about 30 percent of people who are asthma-free, according to the “Fundamentals of Sports Injury Management” by Marcia Anderson. If you suffer from sinus disease, allergies or other lung-related ailments, the risks of coming down with exercise-induced bronchospasm increase. In addition to abdominal cramping, other symptoms of this condition include chest pain or tightness, shortness of breath and a dry cough. If you do have exercise-induced bronchospasm, a doctor will most likely prescribe an inhaler.