You know that pain. You’re working out, playing a pick-up game of basketball or taking a quick run, when you feel a sharp pain near your ribcage. Sometimes, it can be so painful that it stops you in your tracks.
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Known as a side stitch, this type of pain is common but usually isn’t anything to be concerned about.
Exercise physiologist Christopher Travers, MS, explains what a side stitch is and what you can do to prevent one.
What is a side stitch?
A side stitch is a painful spasm of your diaphragm — the powerful muscle that separates your chest from your abdomen. You’ll typically feel a persistent pain right under your ribs or a jabbing pain on your side.
In some cases, you’ll feel a sharp pain, pulling, aching or cramping on both sides of your abdomen area.
In one study of 965 athletes, side stitches affected 75% of swimmers, 69% of runners, 62% of horse riders, 52% of aerobics participants, 47% of basketball players and 32% of cyclists.
So, if you’re active or working out, your chance of experiencing one of these side stitches at some point or another is good. Even walking up a lot of stairs can bring on a side stitch.
How long does a side stitch last? That can depend. If you stop or slow down your physical activity, it may only last for a few minutes. But in some cases — especially if the cramp is intense — you may be sore in that area for a couple of days.
Why does this happen?
There’s no single reason why side stitches occur.
The leading theory suggests increased blood flow to your liver and spleen. Another theory is that pain is caused by internal organs pulling down on your diaphragm. This doesn’t explain why side stitches frequently occur in swimming, though.
Another possible reason could be when you eat right before any physical activity, as your body moves blood to your stomach to help with digestion leading to less blood in your diaphragm.
“There is also the chance that an imbalance of electrolytes in the blood, such as calcium, potassium and sodium, contributes to side stitches,” says Travers.
How to get rid of and prevent side stitches
It’s never fun to have to pause or stop your workout routine because of a side stitch. So, if you find yourself with a side stitch, is there anything you can do? Try one of these options:
- Slow down. Whether you’re in a full-on sprint or just speed walking around the block, slow your pace.
- Take deep breaths. By doing so, you’re giving your muscles time to relax. Breathe in for a few seconds, then exhale. Repeat.
- Find the pain. Locate the area in question and use your fingers to apply pressure. This may help alleviate some of the pain.
If you’re looking to avoid a side stitch from the start, try the following:
- Be mindful of what you eat. It’s recommended that you try not to eat for two hours leading up to your physical activity. And you want to limit any foods and drinks that have a high amount of sugar.
- Warm up before starting your activity. Stretch for about five to 10 minutes, focusing on your sides.
- Regulate your breathing. Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Drink water. Staying hydrated throughout the day is key, but don’t drink too much right be exercise, as it can put too much pressure on your diaphragm.
Overall, side stitches are common but not something that should affect your daily life. There are plenty of things you can do to prevent or stop them.
“Be mindful of your body and planning your exercise, and listen to what your body is telling you,” advises Travers.