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Here’s How You Can Get Rid of the Dreaded Side Stitch While Running

Doctors may not know exactly what causes side stitches, but they have some ideas about how to prevent them.

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Did you know that side stitches have an actual medical term and diagnosis? What we call stitches, cramps, or side aches are actually dubbed Exercise-Related Transient Abdominal Pain (ETAP).  According to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the pain is considered harmless, but (as you know if you’ve ever dealt with it) it can hinder your running performance.  

The symptoms of side stitches include mild cramping or aching pain localized to the side of the lower ribcage or middle of the abdomen. The pain can also be sharp or stabbing. It occurs while running.

According to a study published in the journal Sports Medicine, 70 percent of runners report experiencing side stitches. And, at a running event, about 20 percent of participants are expected to experience them during a race.

Why Does My Side Hurt When I Run?

Because the description of the pain among symptomatic people has been consistently similar, doctors are able to consider ETAP a singular condition. However, the cause of it is still widely unknown and debated. For many decades there was no research done on ETAP, and only since 1999 has it started to be studied again.

Some speculate that it is caused by stress on visceral ligaments that support the liver and stomach, which could explain why jolting movements and food and fluid consumption can aggravate it. People who suffer from ETAP often describe the pain as “cramping,” but researchers have not found evidence that muscle cramps are the cause. And other research has potentially linked it to poor posture and the nervous system (researchers in that case were able to re-create the pain in the subjects by palpating specific vertebrae). The most likely cause, according to this study published in the journal Sports Medicine, is when the parietal peritoneum, which lines the inside of the abdominal and pelvic walls, experiences friction or becomes irritated. 

Several studies have demonstrated that it is more likely to occur in individuals under the age of 20, with the prevalence and severity decreasing with age. 

How to Get Rid of and Prevent Running Cramps

Since doctors are still trying to determine what exactly causes ETAP, any strategies for treating or preventing the pain is mostly anecdotal. However, runners have reported the following interventions as helping.

Do this the next time you feel a side stitch while running coming on.

These kinds of cramps will almost always go away on their own, but you can try these techniques to get the pain to dissipate sooner.

  1. Focus on maintaining relaxed, even breathing.
  2. Slow down and place your hand around the area that hurts.
  3. As you exhale, pinch the area between your fingers and thumb. Relax your hand as you inhale.
  4. Continue this pattern for five or six breaths.
  5. If that doesn’t work, stop running. Simply stopping is usually enough for the cramp to go away.

How to prevent side cramps when running.

Sports physician Paul McCrory joked in this article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that the only true way to rid yourself of side stitches was to “grow old, as stitches are less common with aging.” If you don’t want to wait for time to take over, you can try these prevention techniques.

  • Hydrate properly.
  • Work on strengthening your core.
  • Avoid heavy or unfamiliar foods two to four hours before running.
  • Avoid sugary beverages or reconstituted fruit juices before or during running.
  • Focus on your breathing during workouts and make sure your breathing isn’t shallow.
  • Adjust your posture or see a physical therapist or coach to get your running form evaluated.