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An abdominal strain can cause localized stomach tenderness, mild swelling, and pain with movement, coughing, or sneezing. Treatment options include cold or heat therapy, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, and rest.

Abdominal strain can refer to any tear, stretch, or rupture of the abdominal muscles. Abdominal strain is sometimes referred to as a pulled muscle.

Abdominal strain can be caused by:

  • sudden twisting or fast movement
  • intense and excessive exercise
  • not properly resting overused muscles
  • improper technique while playing sports that require running, turning, and jumping
  • lifting heavy objects
  • laughing, coughing, or sneezing

It isn’t the same thing as an abdominal hernia, though some of the symptoms may be the same. A hernia occurs when an internal organ or body part sticks out through the wall of muscle or tissue that contains it.

Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms of abdominal strain, how it’s treated, and how to prevent it from happening again.

If you have an abdominal strain, the surface of your stomach area may feel tender and inflamed. You’re more likely to feel these sensations when you’re contracting your abdominal muscles and moving.

Other symptoms include:

  • sudden sharp pain
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • weakness
  • stiffness
  • pain or difficulty stretching or flexing the muscle
  • muscle spasms or cramping

Depending on the severity of the strain, you may find it challenging to walk, stand up straight, or bend forward or sideways. Other movements that involve your core muscles, such as reaching above your head, may also be difficult.

Although the symptoms of abdominal strain and hernia may seem similar, there are several differences between the two.

If you’re experiencing a hernia, you may notice:

  • an unexpected lump or bulge in the abdomen
  • a persistent aching or burning sensation
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • constipation

You can usually treat abdominal strain at home. Most mild strains will heal within a few weeks. Here are some treatment options that will help ensure a speedy recovery.

1. Cold therapy

Performing cold therapy as soon as possible can help to relieve bleeding, pain, and swelling. Cold therapy may help reduce inflammation.

To do this:

  1. Get an ice pack, gel pack, or bag of frozen vegetables that you can use to ice the affected area.
  2. Wrap a cloth or towel around the cold pack. This will help protect your skin and reduce your risk of added irritation.
  3. Gently apply the cold pack to your injury for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
  4. If you can, repeat this process each hour during the first few days of your injury.

2. Heat therapy

Using heat therapy can help relax your muscles and relieve tension, which helps reduce pain. Heat also increases blood flow to the affected area. This can promote healing and reduce inflammation.

To do this:

  1. Get a heating pad or patch.
  2. If you don’t have a ready-made compress, you can fill a clean sock with rice and tie it off. Microwave the sock for 1 to 2 minutes. Make sure it isn’t uncomfortably hot to the touch.
  3. Apply the warm compress to the affected area for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  4. If you can, repeat this process every hour for the first few days of your injury.

3. Over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers

You can also take OTC medications to lessen the severity of the pain.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve), may also help relieve swelling and inflammation.

You can also take pain relievers such as aspirin (Bayer) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), but they won’t have an effect on inflammation.

4. Compression

You may consider wearing an abdominal binder or bandage to help compress your abdominals. The applied pressure can help minimize movement and swelling.

Talk to your doctor about how long and how tight you should wear the binder to resolve your symptoms. Choose a binder made of hypoallergenic material to avoid any allergic reaction, too.

5. Rest

Rest as much as you can and avoid any activities that cause you stress or strain. This is especially important if you have an athletic injury.

Try to find a comfortable way to sit or lie down, and use this time to do something that’s relaxing. Take it easy until your pain subsides completely. This could take up to a few weeks.

6. Exercise

Once your symptoms have subsided, you can begin abdominal and core strengthening exercises. Curlups and pelvic tilts are two popular therapies.

If your body allows, do these exercises a few times a week. Make sure you give yourself time to rest in between sessions.

To do curlups:

  1. Lie on your back with bent knees.
  2. Bring your arms by your sides.
  3. Raise your head and shoulders up a few inches. Bring your arms up as high as your thighs.
  4. Hold for 6 seconds.
  5. Lower back down.
  6. Do 3 sets of 8 repetitions.

To do a pelvic tilt:

  1. Lie on your back with bent knees.
  2. Engage and tighten your abdominal muscles as you pull in, drawing your bellybutton toward your spine.
  3. Press your lower back into the floor as you slightly tilt your hips and pelvis back.
  4. Hold for 6 seconds.
  5. Relax and return to the starting position.
  6. Do 3 sets of 8 repetitions.

If you’re taking measures to heal your pain and it’s not improving — or if your pain worsens — see your doctor. Your symptoms may be a sign of an underlying condition.

You should also see your doctor if you experience any immediate and severe pain that’s accompanied by:

  • vomiting
  • cold sweats
  • dizziness

Your doctor can help you determine the best course of treatment and see if there are any underlying conditions.

Most abdominal strains will heal within a few weeks.

It’s important that you take measures to prevent future abdominal strain. Recurrent abdominal strain can lead to complications.

When exercising, you should:

  • Warm up and stretch before engaging in any physical activity.
  • Do a cooldown after your workout.
  • Take time off each week to rest your muscles.
  • Start slowly and gradually work your way up in terms of intensity and duration any time you begin a new exercise program.

In general, you should:

  • Bend your knees and hips and lower down with a straight back to lift heavy objects.
  • Maintain good posture while sitting or standing. Check in on and correct your posture throughout the day.
  • If you have to sit for extended periods, make sure you get up to take a break and move around often.