Abdominal Muscle Strain

Overview

What is an abdominal muscle strain (pulled stomach muscle)?

An abdominal muscle strain occurs when you tear or overly stretch muscles in the stomach. An abdominal muscle strain and pulled stomach muscle are the same condition.

What are the abdominal muscles?

The abdominal (stomach) muscles are part of the musculoskeletal system. These muscles on the front of the body, between the pelvis and ribs, support the trunk (midsection), hold organs in place and help you move.

Your abdominal muscles and your back muscles are core muscles that support and stabilize the spine. They work together to help you sit, stand, walk, exercise and more.

Several groups of muscles make up the abdominal muscles:

  • Oblique muscles contract to help rotate your body (trunk) left and right.
  • Rectus abdominus muscles are the muscles you can see in “six-pack abs.” They allow movement between the ribcage and pelvis.
  • Transversus abdominus muscles are the deepest abdominal muscles. They help stabilize the trunk and protect organs.

Where do abdominal muscle strains (pulled stomach muscles) occur?

An abdominal muscle strain can affect any abdominal muscle. You may have:

  • Left side abdominal strain.
  • Right side abdominal strain.
  • Lower abdominal strain.
  • Upper abdominal strain.

What’s the difference between a pulled stomach muscle and a hernia?

Hernias occur when an organ pushes through a weak spot in a muscle. They typically appear in the groin, the area between the abdomen and upper thigh. An abdominal muscle strain may increase your risk of getting a hernia.

A hernia and a pulled stomach muscle can both cause abdominal pain. Hernias cause a lump or bulge at the hernia site, which may ache or burn. A hernia can also cause constipation or nausea and vomiting (abdominal strains don’t cause these problems). A hernia won’t go away without treatment, but an abdominal muscle strain gets better with rest.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes an abdominal muscle strain (pulled stomach muscle)?

A pulled stomach muscle is often an overuse injury. Repetitive movements, usually in sports or other physical activity, cause the muscle to stretch or tear.

Other causes include:

  • Accidents, such as falls or motor vehicle wrecks.
  • Chronic coughing or sneezing.
  • Intense or excessive exercise.
  • Lifting heavy objects.
  • Poor form when playing sports or exercising.
  • Sudden twisting.

Who is at risk for getting an abdominal muscle strain (pulled stomach muscle)?

Anyone can pull a stomach muscle, but certain activities increase your risk. People who play sports like football and tennis that require a lot of reaching and side-to-side trunk movements are more likely to develop this problem.

What are the symptoms of an abdominal muscle strain (pulled stomach muscle)?

Abdominal pain and musculoskeletal pain are the main signs of an abdominal strain. You may experience this pain when:

  • Coughing, sneezing or laughing.
  • Sprinting or doing vigorous exercise.
  • Getting up after a prolonged period of sitting or inactivity.

Other symptoms include:

Diagnosis and Tests

How are abdominal muscle strains (pulled stomach muscles) diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider can diagnose a pulled stomach muscle based on symptoms and a physical exam. Depending on the cause of the injury and your symptoms, you may get:

Management and Treatment

How are abdominal muscle strains (pulled stomach muscles) managed or treated?

Abdominal muscle strains get better over time with rest. These steps can help:

  • Alternate between applying an ice pack and warm compresses to the injured area.
  • Meet with a physical therapist to learn stretching and strengthening exercises.
  • Take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to ease pain and inflammation.
  • Wear an abdominal brace to support the stomach muscles and minimize swelling.

Prevention

How can I prevent an abdominal muscle strain (pulled stomach muscle)?

Giving your abdominal muscles a rest from certain activities can lower your chances of pulling a stomach muscle. You can also:

  • Ask for help when lifting heavy items.
  • Try Pilates, yoga or other exercises to regularly stretch the abdominal muscles.
  • Strengthen abdominal exercises by doing planks and other exercises that work the core muscles.
  • Warm up your muscles before vigorous physical activity, and do cool-down exercises afterward.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people who have abdominal muscle strains?

Most people can return to their activities after giving the abdominal muscles time to rest and heal.

Living With

When should I call the doctor?

You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:

  • Difficulty walking.
  • Pain that interferes with daily activities or sleeping.
  • Signs of a hernia.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

You may want to ask your healthcare provider:

  • What caused the abdominal muscle strain?
  • What’s the best treatment for me?
  • How can I prevent future pulled stomach muscles?
  • Am I at risk for other problems like a hernia?
  • Should I look out for signs of complications?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

An abdominal muscle strain, or pulled stomach muscle, will get better with time, rest and the appropriate treatments. It’s important to take steps to strengthen abdominal and core muscles to prevent straining the muscle again or pulling a different stomach muscle. Your healthcare provider can offer suggestions to lower your risk of an abdominal muscle strain.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/15/2021.

References

  • American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. Overuse Injury. (https://www.stopsportsinjuries.org/STOP/Prevent_Injuries/Overuse_Injury.aspx) Accessed 9/23/2021.
  • Better Health Channel (Victoria State Government Department of Health, Australia). Abdominal Muscles. (https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/abdominal-muscles) Accessed 9/23/2021.
  • Maquirriain J, Ghisi JP, Kokalj AM. Rectus abdominis muscle strains in tennis players. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2465294/) Br J Sports Med. 2007;41(11):842-848. Accessed 9/23/2021.
  • Shian B, Larson ST. Abdominal wall pain: Clinical evaluation, differential diagnosis and treatment. (https://www.aafp.org/afp/2018/1001/p429.html) American Family Physician. 2018;98(7):429-36. Accessed 9/23/2021.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy