If you’re playing competitive sports or just competing with yourself with strenuous workouts, it’s not hard to strain an abdominal muscle. It happens when there’s a full or partial tear in the small muscle fibers in the abdomen. Even though it might not be a serious injury from a medical standpoint, abdominal strains can be painful and take time to heal. Because the strain affects your range of motion, it might also sideline you from sports or exercise.
The most commonly strained ab muscle is the rectus abdominis, which is the large muscle on the front of your trunk, where the “six-pack” reside. Abdominal muscles strains are classified into Grade I (mild), Grade II (Moderate) and Grade III (severe). In the case of mild strains, you may have some pain or discomfort but be able to continue with activities. Grade II and Grade III strains may limit activities and cause moderate to severe pain, respectively.
If you’ve strained an ab muscle, these 6 tips could help you get back in the game sooner than you might otherwise.
Your first order of business is to evaluate whether you should seek medical attention. Is there swelling, discoloration or intolerable pain? If so, you should seek urgent medical care.
Cryotherapy — that’s a fancy word for applying an ice pack — can help prevent swelling and reduce pain. Apply a cold compress to the strained area of the abdomen for 20 minutes at a time, four to eight times a day. You can use a cold pack, ice bag,or fill a plastic bag with crushed ice and wrap it in a towel. To avoid cold injury and frostbite, do not apply the ice for more than 20 minutes.
For the first 24 to 48 hours, you should avoid unnecessary movement. For a severe strain, you may need to refrain from strenuous exercise for 3 to 8 weeks. Try to be patient and remember that it’s easy to re-injure yourself.
Topical NSAIDs—non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs — relieve acute pain from soft tissue injuries, such as abdominal strains. They are available both over-the-counter and by prescription. Applied to the injured area, they work on the muscle’s peripheral nerves without going into the blood stream. They also provide rapid relief, working within a few hours of the first application. In addition to pain relief, topical NSAIDs have been shown to speed up recovery because their anti-inflammatory benefits promote healing. They should not be used simultaneously with oral NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, including low-dose aspirin. Your health care provider also may recommend an over-the-counter or prescription medication to help decrease pain and inflammation.
Therapeutic massage may help increase circulation and relieve spasms in surrounding muscles. For milder strains, David Knox, author of Body School: A New Guide to Improved Movement in Everyday Life, recommends drumming your fingers strongly — or at least as strongly as you can stand — across the abdomen.
When you’ve recovered enough to stretch without trigger pain, gentle stretches that lengthen and lift the abs will help soften the muscle tissue. For starters, a simple breathing exercise is a good place to start. Lie prone on the floor with your arms above your ahead. Breathe deeply.
- Mt. Sinai Hospital: Abdominal Muscle Strain
- ACE Fitness: Sprains, Strains and Tears
- National Institute of Arthritus and Muscoskeletal and Skin Diseases: Questions and Answers about Strains and Sprains
- Body School: A New Guide to Improved Movement in Daily Life
- Journal of Pain Research: Topical Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs REF 5 For The Treatment Of Pain Due To Soft Tissue Injury: Diclofenac Epolamine Topical Patch
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Rectus Abdominis Muscle Strains in Tennis Players