Active Health, Just a Quick Question ...
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Quick Question – Why do I get a stitch when I exercise?

Stitches can quite literally stop you in your tracks. It’s hard to ignore a dull yet stabbing pain which takes your breath away, hurts more as your feet hit the ground and sometimes feels as severe as you’d expect a pain requiring surgical intervention to feel! What actually is a stitch? Why do some people get them more than others? How can you prevent a stitch and most importantly, what can you do to get rid of a stitch?

What is a stitch?

The honest answer is that we don’t really know! There are lots of theories including a lack of blood supply to the diaphragm making the diaphragm muscle cramp up. Movement of internal organs causing a ‘tugging’ on ligaments and tissues. Nerve pain from the spine being referred to the abdomen. Friction causing irritation of the lining of the abdominal cavity and many more. More research needs to be done to work out the exact cause, why some people get them more than others and why they’re more frequent in some types of sport too (higher in running and horse riding and lower in cycling for example). There was an interesting review article in Sports Medicine in January 2015 if you’d like to read more.

How can I prevent stitches?

When you don’t know the cause of something, it’s hard to work out exactly how to prevent it but there are steps you can take to try to reduce the likelihood of getting a stitch when you exercise:

  • Allow enough time for your food to be digested before you exercise. Two hours after a meal is a minimum, many people need to leave three or four.
  • Ensure you are well hydrated. You don’t want to over do it and feel bloated so it’s better to sip frequently in the hours before you exercise than to down a pint of water just before you head out. High sugar drinks are thought to be a possible trigger too
  • Warm up well. Easing yourself into vigorous exercise gradually might help to prevent a stitch
  • Be patient. Stitches are more common in those just starting their fitness journeys so don’t let them put you off. As you get fitter you’ll find they generally happen less often
  • Strengthen your core. Having strong supportive abdominal and back muscles helps to maintain good posture which may help to reduce stitches.

How can I get rid of a stitch?

The pain from a stitch can be so severe it makes you want to stop. Although they feel bad, stitches aren’t serious and keeping going won’t do you any harm, even if it is uncomfortable.  Try these techniques to reduce and ease your stitch:

  • Slow down. Keep going but just reduce your pace. Taking the pressure off a little can be enough to let a stitch resolve and you can then crank up the pace again when you feel comfortable
  • Relax and breathe. Focus on your breathing, slow it down, inhale deeply, right into your belly and exhale fully too. Finding a regular, rhythmic breathing pattern can help
  • Stretch your abdomen. Try putting your hands on your head and tilting your body to the side so that the area your stitch is in is stretched out. You can do this while you’re on the move
  • Touch your toes. Stop for a moment and bend forwards. Take a few deep breaths in this position. You can also try pressing on the stitch affected area
  • If you’re running then many people anecdotally claim they can get rid of stitches by slowing their pace and exhaling as the foot on the opposite side of the body from the stitch, hits the ground. Try it for yourself and see!

As you can see, there are many unknowns and many things to try but not a whole lot of hard evidence. Do you get a lot of stitches? What works for you? Share your stitch tips in the comments below.

There are more answers to questions like these and lots of health information to help you lead a happy and active life in my book Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health. Published by Bloomsbury and awarded First Place in the Popular Medicine category at the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards 2018.

Featured Image: Pexels

This entry was posted in: Active Health, Just a Quick Question ...


I'm a former GP, mum of three, runner and health writer. My award winning book 'Sorted: The Active Woman's Guide to Health' is available now and published by Bloomsbury Sport. I'm the resident Health Expert for Women's Running UK, the Women's Health Lead and Master Coach for 261Fearless and Director of 261 Fearless Club UK. On a mission to get the world moving more!

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