Can Exercise Cause Upper Abdominal Pain?

Pretty young woman on gym clothing having pain in stomach
Stitches are a common cause of upper abdominal pain during exercise. (Image: pablocalvog/iStock/Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocates regular exercise to stay in shape, reduce the incidence of disease and boost your mood. However, exercise can stress your body, including your abdomen, possibly leading to pain. In many cases, upper abdominal pain can be prevented by taking proper precautions, but pain that occurs consistently could be the sign of something more serious. Consult a doctor if the pain persists despite preventive measures.

Stitches

A common cause of upper abdominal pain when exercising is exercise-related transient abdominal pain, more commonly referred to as stitches. The pain from stitches usually occurs in the upper right side of your abdominal region, just under the rib cage, although it can also happen on the left side or both sides simultaneously. Pain from stitches is experienced as a dull ache or pulling sensation, or as a stabbing, sharp pain in more severe cases. The exact cause of stitches is not clear, but eating or drinking too much before exercising, dehydration, erratic breathing patterns and lack of conditioning are all contributing factors.

Prevention

To prevent stitches, eat a full meal at least 2 hours before exercising; eat a small snack at least 30 minutes beforehand. Drink small amounts of water before exercise and take small sips while engaged in activity. Wait until you are finished exercising to fully hydrate. Drinking a sports drink is an acceptable substitute for water, especially if you are sweating a lot, but avoid gel packs or other sports drinks that have more than 8 percent sugar, as they can contribute to stitches. Focus on your breathing while exercising, and take smooth, even breaths. Certified trainer Stew Smith of Military.com recommends taking three steps for every inhalation and two steps for every exhalation.

Treatment

Stitches can be treated by slowing your pace or stopping all activity and grabbing the affected area. Massage or place pressure on your upper abdomen until the painful sensation goes away. Bending forward at the waist and taking full, deep breaths can also help. While breathing, push your abdomen out while inhaling and relax it on the exhale. The pain should dissipate quickly; if not, rest and drink small sips of water until the pain is gone. Seek medical attention if the pain persists despite self-care measures.

Considerations

Although stitches are a common cause of exercise-related upper abdominal pain, it's possible a digestive problem or other medical disorder is to blame. Exercise might just be making things worse. Common gastrointestinal issues include food intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and gastritis. In many instances, gastrointestinal problems are accompanied by additional symptoms, including gas, belching, nausea, heartburn, bloating and diarrhea. If you have any of these symptoms, or if taking preventive measures doesn't stop the upper abdominal pain from occurring during exercise, consult a doctor.

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