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Abdominal Strain Overview

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT March 02, 2021 0 Comments

Abdominal Pain Area

An abdominal muscle strain can greatly affect your daily routine, whether you are a professional athlete, or someone who simply enjoys an active lifestyle. This injury may occur suddenly, but it can also develop gradually. Keep reading to learn how to identify an abdominal muscle strain and make your road to recovery less stressful.

What is an Abdominal Muscle Strain?

Abdominal muscles support the spine, assist with breathing, and allow coordinated movement. The abdominal muscles consist of the transversus abdominis (fibers running across the abdomen), rectus abdominis (fibers running up and down), and the internal and external obliques (fibers running in opposite diagonal directions). The rectus abdominis muscle is flat and long, while the transversus abdominis is flat and triangular.

Left Side Abdominal Pain

Since abdominal pain is a common complaint that leads to medical intervention, it is important to be wary of other causes of abdominal pain. While left sided abdominal pain can be from a muscle strain or hernia, it can also be caused by underlying conditions that need to be further assessed. This can include colon conditions (such as diverticulitis), gynecological conditions (such as ovarian cysts or endometriosis), or testicular conditions. This is why it is always important to differentiate the location and type of pain. 

Classifications of Abdominal Muscle Strain

A muscle strain occurs when the muscle tissue becomes torn and the muscle is stretched beyond its limits. Abdominal muscle strains are classified in three degrees, depending on severity.

  1. A first degree strain involves mild damage to several muscle fibers.
  2. A second degree abdominal strain, or a partial tear, involves extensive damage to the muscle fibers (usually 50% or more). Depending on the number of muscle fibers damaged, a second degree strain may be debilitating.
  3. A third degree strain is a complete rupture of the muscle fibers. It is rare and severe, and it requires emergency medical care.

Abdominal Strain vs. Hernias

Most often, pulled abdominal muscles or an abdominal muscle strain affect the rectus abdominis and can easily be confused with a hernia; in some cases even lead to one. Major differences between an abdominal strain and a hernia include:

  • Nature of the pain
  • Appearance
  • Location
  • Mechanism of injury

Hernias happen when the internal organs or the surrounding connective tissue pushes roughly through a weak part of abdominal muscles, there is typically a visible bulge.

Sports Hernias

A sports hernia is a broad term for lower abdominal strain or groin strain. This is actually a tearing of the posterior abdominal wall and does not typically involve an actual hernia. Symptoms of a sports hernia are similar to those associated with groin and abdominal strains.

Learn More About Hernias Here

Causes of a Strained Abdominal Muscle

Determining the root cause of your abdominal wall strain can be tricky. Consult your healthcare provider for a formal diagnosis, but consider these common causes of strained abdominal muscles:

  • Poor posture
  • Overstretching
  • Poor core strength and stability
  • Poor core mechanics with ab exercises and daily activities
  • Sudden twisting or sudden hyperextension of the spine
  • A stomach muscle strain sustained during sports activities
  • Abdominal muscle strain from coughing hard or sneezing
  • Trauma to the stomach
  • Lifting heavy objects

Learn About Maintaining Good Posture

Abdominal Strain Symptoms

Pain is the most common and obvious symptom of an abdominal muscle strain, but there are others to watch out for. Upper abdominal strain symptoms are typically the same as lower abdominal strain symptoms, differing only by location. Consult your doctor if you notice any of the following abdominal muscle strain symptoms.

Bruising and Swelling

Abdominal muscle strains, which involve small tears or a complete rupture, may result in swelling and bruising over the site of injury. Immediate medical attention is necessary.

Cramping or Tightness

A sensation of cramping or tightness happens when the stomach muscles (such as the rectus abdominis) are stretched or contracted. You may even experience this while sneezing or coughing.

Burning or Stabbing Pain

This typically occurs after the tear develops. The discomfort is often localized instead of diffuse. Also, pain is aggravated by any activity that causes stretching or direct use of the torn muscle.

Difficulty Breathing & Rapid Heart Rate

These symptoms can be due to internal bleeding, which may also cause vomiting, nausea, and cold sweats. These symptoms may indicate a serious abdominal muscle strain or other underlying issue that is causing abdominal pain. Consult your doctor immediately.

Abdominal Muscle Strain Diagnosis

Visit your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any of the symptoms listed above. Even if your condition does not seem serious, an accurate abdominal muscle strain diagnosis is crucial to a speedy recovery. Here are the safe and effective diagnostic procedures your doctor will use:

Medical History and Physical Examination

A comprehensive physical exam is the first step in diagnosing an abdominal muscle strain. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, medical history, and daily activities. They will then examine your belly and will likely ask you to do an exercise, such as a sit-up, to see if it causes discomfort.

MRI Scan

In the location of the strain, there will be swelling, tenderness, and often weakness. If symptoms are severe, your doctor will most likely order an MRI scan to determine the extent of rupture. MRI scans also rule out hernias.

Abdominal Strain Recovery Time

Understand your body’s limitations, and give your abdominal muscles time to recover. By practicing good posture and maintaining good muscle strength, you can reduce the risk of re-injury.

  • For a mild abdominal strain, recovery time is typically two to ten days. 
  • A moderate strain often requires two to six weeks
  • A severe abdominal strain might need up to ten weeks of recovery time.

Once the pain and swelling are gone, your doctor should recommend a program to help you get back to your regular activities.

Care & Prevention

To recover fully, seek medical attention and discontinue activities that cause pain until further assessed. A sports medicine doctor can set you up on a safe recovery plan for your pulled muscle. Continue through our guide on abdominal muscle strains to learn ways to treat symptoms, exercise safely, and prevent further injury.


Abdominal Strain Products


Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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