Signs & Symptoms of a Pulled Abdominal Muscle

Female tennis player
Abdominal strains often occur with forceful twisting of the trunk. (Image: SolisImages/iStock/Getty Images)

A pulled abdominal muscle is a relatively common, troublesome injury among physically active people. The injury muscle fiber tearing in one or more of the muscles of the abdominal wall. Also known as an abdominal muscle strain, this type of injury ranges from mild to severe, depending on the extent of tearing. Signs and symptoms of a pulled abdominal muscle are usually obvious, and develop either immediately or shortly after the injury.

Pain and Discomfort

An abdominal strain characteristically causes pain and tenderness at the sight of the tear. This usually occurs almost instantaneously after the tear develops, although there might be a short delay with a mild abdominal strain. The pain is usually well localized rather than diffuse, and is aggravated by any activity that causes stretching of the injured muscle -- such as coughing, sneezing, reaching or twisting. The pain gradually diminishes as the injury heals, which can take several weeks to months.

Spasm, Bruising and Swelling

Spasm of a strained abdominal muscle can occur following the injury. As a pulled abdominal muscle develops due to muscle fiber overstretching, reflexive contraction in the form of a spasm protects the area from further injury. Severe abdominal strains involving a sizable tear or complete muscle rupture can lead to bruising and swelling over the site of the injury. As these signs indicate a significant injury, immediate medical attention is necessary should swelling or bruising develop.

Uncommon Signs and Symptoms

A complete abdominal muscle rupture is a relatively rare, serious injury. It typically incapacitates the person, who often collapses to the ground -- usually while remaining conscious. Internal bleeding, severe pain or both can lead to nausea, vomiting, cold sweating, difficulty breathing and a rapid heart rate. Any of these signs and symptoms in association with a suspected abdominal muscle injury indicates the need for emergency medical attention.

Warnings and Precautions

Seek immediate medical care if you experience any signs or symptoms that might indicate a serious abdominal muscle strain. Even if your injury does not seem severe, it's helpful to consult with your doctor to determine the best approach for managing a pulled abdominal muscle so that it doesn't become a source of ongoing pain.

Occasionally, an abdominal muscle strain might be confused with or lead to a hernia, in which a portion of the intestines protrudes through the abdominal wall. See your doctor as soon as possible if you develop an abdominal wall bulge that might indicate a hernia. Seek emergency medical care if the bulge is associated with any warning signs or symptoms, including: -- severe or increasing pain in the area of the bulge -- hardening of the bulge -- redness or warmth of the skin over the bulge -- nausea and vomiting

Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.

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