A strained abdomen can cramp your style, messing with your exercise schedule as well as your daily work and home life routine. Fortunately, most strains can be quickly addressed, so you can get back to normal in no time.
Here's more about what pulled abdominal muscle symptoms look like, what causes this pain and how to tell whether your strained abdomen is actually a hernia.
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What Are Strained Abdominal Muscles?
A strained muscle of any type is an injury to the muscle or tendon in the area, per the Mayo Clinic. If you have a strained abdomen, it could be a minor case of overstretched core muscles or a more serious injury due to a full or partial tear in these tissues.
Strained muscles can plague you anywhere in the body, though most folks develop them in the lower back and hamstrings, according to the Mayo Clinic. Certain sports are more likely to lead to a stomach strain, though, including tennis.
What Does an Abdominal Strain Feel Like?
Your core is your strength when it comes to daily movement, but if you hurt this area, you'll definitely know it right away.
"I tell people that typically you don't know how often you engage your abdominal muscles until you have a strain or spasm," says Alex McDonald, MD, a board-certified family physician at Kaiser Permanente.
You might feel soreness or localized tightness or a spasm of the muscle wall, he adds, and it can flare with any type of physical action. "The pain can be caused by simply lifting your arm or standing up from a seated position," Dr. McDonald notes.
What Causes Strained Abdominal Muscles?
The causes of strained abdominal muscles are varied, though often these injuries are due to overuse or repeated actions due to sports or other physical straining, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (It is possible for your stomach to be sore if you don't exercise, though.)
Dr. McDonald and the Cleveland Clinic note that the following causes are often behind a stomach strain:
- Sudden acute motions (think: swinging a tennis racket)
- Chronic coughing or sneezing
- Poor form when lifting heavy objects
- Twisting your body awkwardly
- Accidents, such as a fall or car crash
Symptoms of an Abdominal Muscle Strain
Here are the symptoms you might experience if you've strained a stomach muscle, according to the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics:
- Pain and tenderness at the site
- Muscle spasms or weakness
- Difficulty moving or stiffness
- Swelling and possible bruising or redness
- Pain when coughing, laughing or getting up after sitting for a long stretch
Is It a Hernia or a Muscle Strain?
If you're wondering whether an abdominal strain can feel like a hernia, there's definitely some overlap in symptoms, Dr. McDonald says. And because the two are similar, "It's a good idea to see your family physician to make sure the diagnosis and treatment are appropriate," he notes.
But generally, if a hernia has developed, "the pain may be more diffused and can radiate to other areas, and a hernia causes a bulge or bump that occurs when straining or lifting," he says. You may see this bulge when you cough or sneeze, too.
On the other hand, "a muscle strain can be tender to the touch even when you're resting and there's a smaller spot which hurts but doesn't radiate outward as much," he adds.
The other way to tell whether it's a hernia or muscle strain is to keep track of your symptoms. A hernia may cause nausea, vomiting and constipation, whereas a stomach muscle strain won't. And a hernia requires treatment to improve, but an abdominal pull tends to get better with rest and time.
Strained Abdomen vs. Hernia
May appear swollen, bruised or red
Bulge or bump appears when straining or lifting
Other Possible Symptoms
Tenderness, spasms, weakness
Nausea, vomiting, constipation
Improves with time and rest
Does not improve without medical treatment
How Do You Treat an Abdominal Strain?
As with most muscle pulls and small tears, the best treatment for an abdominal strain is time and rest, Dr. McDonald says. You can also try the following to ease your symptoms:
- Apply ice or heat to the affected area (or alternate between the two)
- Take over-the-counter pain medication, such as ibuprofen
- Gently stretch and strengthen the area (consider meeting with a physical therapist to learn which exercises you can do with a torn abdominal muscle)
- Consider dry needling
Dry needling uses an acupuncture needle to cause microscopic bleeding and break up scar tissue, Dr. McDonald says. This type of treatment may be appropriate if the strain becomes chronic or doesn't improve after two or three weeks, he says.
FAQs About Pulled Abdominal Muscles
Still curious about stomach strains? Here are some common FAQs and answers that can help:
How do you know if stomach pain is internal or muscular?
A pulled abdominal muscle differs from a stomachache in that your abdomen may be tender to the touch and appear bruised, red or swollen. You'll also feel more intense pain from a strained muscle when you cough, laugh or move quickly. You may also feel spasms or weakness in your core.
How long does it take for an abdominal strain to heal?
"Like any muscle strain, depending on severity and consistency of treatment, it might take two to six weeks to completely heal a pulled or torn abdominal muscle," Dr. McDonald says.
How do you know if your muscle is pulled or just sore?
If you've done a tough workout, you'll feel general soreness in a gradual way the following day, which will resolve after a day or so, notes Dr. McDonald. "Whereas a muscle strain is often more localized and there may be a tight muscle band or 'knot' which can be felt," he says. "And the onset of a strain's pain is usually more acute."
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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.