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New runners might become quite concerned when they experience a stabbing, sharp pain on one side of the abdomen, usually just under the ribs, but more experienced runners know that this phenomenon is all too common: research suggests that a whopping 70 percent of runners will get it during any one year.

It's called a "side stitch". Though most well-known among runners, horse riders and swimmers are also familiar with this sharp, stabbing pain. 

Though the jury is still out on the underlying cause of this problem, it's not usually anything serious but there are things you can do to prevent getting a side stitch.

What Causes Side Stitches In Athletes?

There are a few different theories as to what might cause side stitches in runners, and of course not all of them are mutually exclusive. Let's take a peek.

  • One possible cause of side stitches in runners is simply your ligaments getting some unusual action. As your internal organs are affected by the force of gravity while running, your ligaments are pulled on too.
  • Another theory is that side stitches are, in fact, caused by either twisting or vertical "jerking" of the vertebrae, leading to spinal irritation and then radiating outwards to cause that nasty pain.
  • Diaphragmatic ischemia, or a reduction in the flow of blood to the diaphragm during running, was originally supposed to be the culprit. Evidence against this theory is now available, however, and this can now be excluded as a cause of side stitches.
  • The theory that's currently most plausible is that side stitches are the result of an irritated parietal peritoneum, that is, the membrane that surrounds the inner torso.

Whatever the actual cause or causes of side stitches, a definite correlation between this discomfort and certain pre-running activities has been found. Those runners who consume energy drinks or other beverages high in sugar, and those who eat big meals before they go running, are more likely to develop side stitches. Those are the first things to avoid if you don't want to end up with uncomfortable side stitches, then.

I Don't Want Side Stitches!

Experienced runners will tell you that taking your time to perform warm-up exercises before you run, regularly engaging in abdominal exercises, and starting off slowly and then speeding up later, can all help prevent side stitches. Exercises that strengthen your back, spine and hips may also help you.

In addition, you will want to avoid those sugary beverages and eat only a light meal a few hours prior to your run, though you can still have a little snack right before you start.

If you are still struck by a side stitch, research suggests that bending forward is a particularly effective way to help it pass as quickly as possible. Practice deep abdominal breathing, stretch a little, have some water, and move on when the side stitch subsides.

Unfortunately, side stitches aren't a matter of lack of fitness though — experienced and toned runners, swimmers and horse riders are as likely to get them as beginners. The good news is that you'll likely learn both how to reduce your risk of getting one and learn to cope with them better as time goes on.

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