Whether you overdid it at the gym or working in the yard, abdominal strains are no laughing matter. Stomach muscle pain after a pulled muscle can be so severe that it actually hurts to laugh, as well as stand erect or get up from a bed or chair. Abdominal strain treatment typically includes rest, ice and compression. Pulled ab muscle recovery time depends on the severity of the strain and how well you adhere to the treatment plan.
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What Are Strained Abdominal Muscles?
Overexerting yourself doing ab exercises or other physical activity, or simply twisting your torso the wrong way while picking something up off the ground, can cause your abdominal muscle fibers to overstretch or tear, otherwise known as a "strained" or "pulled" muscle. The resulting stomach muscle pain can be either acute, meaning you feel it right away, or can show up later that day or the next day.
An abdominal muscle strain is different from the normal soreness you might feel after a tough workout. That is called delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, which is typically less painful and subsides after a day or two.
Symptoms of an Abdominal Muscle Strain
The symptoms you experience after pulling an abdominal muscle depend on the severity of the strain. Typical symptoms can include:
- Immediate sharp pain
- Muscle soreness
- Muscle weakness
- Pain when stretching the torso
- Muscle spasm
- Muscle cramps
Grades of Severity
Muscle strains are categorized according to the severity of the injury:
- Grade I: A mild strain in which only a few muscle fibers are overstretched or torn. The muscle may be tender and painful, but there is no loss of muscle strength.
- Grade II: A moderate strain, with more muscle fiber tears and more severe pain, accompanied by mild swelling and marked muscle weakness. There may also be bruising.
- Grade III: A severe strain in which the muscle has been completely torn. There may be a popping sound as the muscle separates in two. This serious injury results in total loss of muscle strength, severe pain and swelling and bruising. Due to the separation of the muscle, there may be a noticeable gap or dent in the abdominal muscle wall.
Read more: How to Tell If You Pulled a Muscle
Abdominal Strain Treatment
Treatment for your abdominal muscle strain depends on the severity of the injury. Mild and moderate strains can usually be treated at home, while serious strains may require medical treatment and surgery. There are six steps you should take to properly heal strained abdominal muscles.
1. See Your Doctor
If your abdominal pain is moderate to severe, you have reduced muscle strength and there is swelling and/or bruising, you should visit your doctor. Your doctor will ask how the strain occurred and whether or not you noticed a pop at the time of injury. After assessing your symptoms and observing the site of the strain, she can make a diagnosis. If the muscle strain is moderate to severe, your doctor may perform X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine the scope of your injury.
If your strain is not serious, your doctor will likely recommend treatment at home with rest, ice, compression and pain relievers if necessary. If your injury is severe, your doctor will recommend medical treatment and may refer you to a specialist.
2. Cease Activity and Rest
This may seem like a no-brainer, but you should not continue exercising, playing sports or doing any strenuous activity after a muscle strain. Doing so can cause you further injury and increase abdominal strain recovery time. For mild to moderate strains, you should rest the abdominal muscles until the swelling, pain and muscle weakness have subsided. In the case of severe strains, you will need to follow your doctor's guidance as to how long you need to rest.
3. Apply Ice to Your Abdomen
Applying ice to the abdomen will help relieve swelling and inflammation. You can use an ice pack, a bag of ice cubes or a bag of frozen vegetables. Do not apply the ice directly to your skin; wrap it in a towel or apply it on top of your clothing. Icing is most effective if you do it immediately after the injury and for the next couple of days. Apply the ice for 20 minutes as often as every hour, or at least four to eight times a day. Do not use the ice for more than 20 minutes at a time.
4. Compress Your Abdomen
Compressing the injured muscles helps reduce swelling and provides support for loss of strength. You can use a long, wide elastic compression wrap, a back brace or an abdominal binder. Men and women can also use a girdle. Wrap it tightly, but not so tightly that it's uncomfortable or impedes breathing.
5. Pay Attention to Movement
While you are healing, it's important to pay attention to how you move. Even with everyday activities, it's possible to make sharp sudden movements, over-rotate your torso or pick up something too heavy that can re-injure your abdominal muscles. Also take care to avoid constipation, as straining to have a bowel movement can be painful or injurious.
6. Do Gentle Stretching Exercises
Once the pain and swelling have subsided, you can begin to gently stretch your abdomen to regain range of motion. Stand tall and place your palms on your lower back, fingers facing up or slightly out. Extend up, then arch your back slightly, feeling the stretch in your abdominals, not your hip flexors.
You can also lie on your stomach and do the cobra pose. Place your hands under your shoulders and press your hip points into the floor. Then, press through your palms, lifting your chest until you feel your abdominals stretch. Never stretch to the point of feeling pain or discomfort.
Prevent Future Strains
While all exercise activities, sports and even daily activities of living can cause abdominal muscle strain, you can take steps to reduce the risk. First of all, be sure your abdominal strain is completely healed before resuming your normal activities. Starting too soon can increase your risk of re-injury, immediately or in the future. Other steps you can take include:
- Avoiding overexertion during exercise and other activities
- Refraining from exercises that involve explosive movements
- Performing abdominal exercises in a steady, controlled manner
- Avoiding hyperextension of your back during weightlifting and other activities
- Bracing your core muscles when lifting heavy objects, coughing and sneezing
If you take these precautions and follow the protocol for abdominal strain treatment, you can experience a full recovery and avoid the pain and disruption of injury in the future.
Read more: What Are the Treatments for a Torn Muscle?
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.