If you are experiencing aches on the side of your abdomen while running or during brisk walking, you are not alone. Fitness Expert Brad Walker of the Stretching Institutes reports an estimated 70 percent of runners experience cramping -- referred to as side stitches -- within a 12-month period. The pain caused by side stitches is the result of the diaphragm muscle cramping, although what causes the muscle to cramp is uncertain.
The side stitch -- also referred to as exercise related transient abdominal pain -- is felt as a sharp pain under the lower edge of the ribcage, most commonly on the right side of the abdomen although it can occur on the left side as well. It is the result of the muscle of the diaphragm cramping -- a severe, painful contraction of the muscle. Side stitches occur more frequently in sports that require a lot of up and down movement, like running or jumping, and less-seasoned athletes get side stitches more often than athletes who are better trained.
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The exact cause of side stitches is not clear. The most common theory is that the muscle of the diaphragm is stressed by the weight of the organs that are attached to it by ligaments. The diaphragm moves up and down during breathing, forcing air in and out of the lungs, and the weight of the organs combined with the movement causes the diaphragm muscle to cramp, which also contracts the muscles nearby.
If you experience side stitches while running or walking briskly, slow your pace or stop moving altogether. If you are moving, focus on deeper breathing, inhaling for three steps and exhaling for two. If you stop, take full, deep breaths, pushing your abdomen out on the inhale and relaxing it during the exhale. While moving or standing, grab the affected area with your hand and squeeze it gently or massage it while bending forward slightly at the waist. Hold it or massage it for a few seconds, then stand straight again. The cramp should be gone.
Taking a few simple precautions before exercise can help avoid the cramps caused by side stitches. Personal trainer Stew Smith at Military.com recommends stretching the abdominal area by lifting your arms over your head and leaning to the left and right at the waist. Gently twisting your torso from side to side will help stretch the muscles of the side of the abdomen. Avoid drinking large amounts of water or eating two to three hours before you run or walk briskly. Strengthen the back and abdominal muscles so the muscles are strong, which will help avoid any sort of cramping. Improving your cardiovascular fitness will tone the muscles of the diaphragm and help you breathe more efficiently.
If you find that you are experiencing cramps or aches consistently, despite taking precautions to avoid side stitches, you may have another issue causing the problem. Gastrointestinal issues, pre-menstrual syndrome and muscle strain can all cause pain in the sides. If your sides are still sore after exercise, or you experience other symptoms such as gas, bloating, or nausea and vomiting along with the achy feeling, consult a doctor.