A side stitch, also known as exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP), is a pain felt on either side of your abdomen. It’s more commonly reported on the right side. Symptoms may range from cramping or a dull ache to a pulling sensation or a sharp, stabbing pain.
A side stitch is usually experienced during prolonged athletic activities, such as running, basketball, or cycling. Researchers in a 2014 study found that around 70 percent of runners reported a side stitch in the last year.
Staying hydrated, stopping your activity or taking a break to walk, and stretching may help with side stitch symptoms.
Read on to learn more about side stitches and what you can do to manage or prevent them.
The exact cause of a side stitch is unknown. Some studies show that a movement of blood to the diaphragm or muscles during physical activity can lead to a side stitch.
But other research shows that an irritation of the lining of the abdominal and pelvic cavity may be the cause. This irritation can occur during physical activity when there’s a lot of movement and friction in the torso.
Athletes often report shoulder tip pain along with a side stitch. This may be because when the abdominal lining is irritated, it can result in localized pain in different areas, including the tip of the shoulder. But more research is needed to pinpoint the cause for this additional pain.
Eating a large meal or drinking sugary sports drinks may also result in a side stitch. Younger athletes may be more likely to get a side stitch than experienced athletes. But side stitches can affect anyone who exercises for a prolonged period of time.
You can try the following steps to help reduce your pain and resolve the side stitch:
- If you’re running, take a break or slow down to a walk.
- Breathe deeply and exhale slowly.
- Stretch your abdominal muscles by reaching one hand overhead. Try bending gently into the side where you feel the stitch.
- Stop moving and try pressing your fingers gently into the affected area while you bend your torso slightly forward.
- Stay hydrated while exercising, but avoid sugary sports drinks if they irritate your stomach.
A side stitch will usually resolve on its own within a few minutes or after you stop exercising. But if your side stitch doesn’t go away after several hours, even after you stop exercising, you may need to seek medical care. It may be the result of a more serious underlying medical condition.
Seek emergency medical help right away if you’re experiencing sharp, stabbing pain accompanied by a fever or swelling on the side of your abdomen.
To prevent a side stitch, avoid eating heavy meals or drinking a lot of liquids one to three hours before exercising. Also, take the following precautions:
- Practice good posture. Athletes with a rounded spine may experience side stitches more often.
- Avoid high-fat and high-fiber foods before exercising.
- Decrease the length of your workout and up the intensity instead.
- Avoid sugary beverages or all beverages right before exercising.
- Increase your level of fitness gradually.
- Increase your mileage by a few miles a week if you’re a runner.
If you’re prone to side stitches, you may want to seek the help of a physiotherapist. They can review your technique and posture if they believe that’s what’s causing you to get side stitches.
Most athletes, especially runners, experience a side stitch from time to time. They’re a common occurrence in endurance events.
A side stitch should go away within a few minutes after you stop exercising. If you’re prone to them, try reducing the length of your workouts. Let your doctor know and seek medical help if you’re experiencing pain in your side or abdomen that’s not related to exercising, or if you have a side stitch that lasts for several hours. It may be the result of a more serious condition.