Upper Abdominal Pain After Exercise: What’s Causing It?

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Author Name: Mia Barnes
Date: Friday August 14, 2020

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You pounded your way through a 5-mile run — and you feel nauseous instead of energized. Maybe you get a sharp pain in your middle 20 minutes into your elliptical training. 

What causes upper abdominal pain after exercise, and should you worry about it? When do you let it ride, and when do you seek medical care? Discover the common causes and what you need to know to protect your health. 

How Common Is Upper Abdominal Pain After Exercise? 

If you feel upper abdominal pain after exercising, you’re far from alone. A recent study showed that up to 50% of athletes experienced similar symptoms, and some experts think the number could soar to include the majority of gym-rats. 

Underlying health conditions such as GERD and ruptured spleens can cause intense pain — but don’t jump to conclusions that you have a severe illness. You could also encounter this problem due to factors that you control. Before you panic, perform a self-evaluation. 

Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Abdominal Pain 

How do you know if your upper abdominal pain warrants a checkup or not? Start by asking yourself the following questions. 

1. Does It Occur Primarily After a Lengthy Workout? 

Long-distance runners and triathletes complain of gastrointestinal (GI) distress more frequently than those who take the occasional Zumba class. Research indicates that 30% to 50% of marathon runners have symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. 

One possible explanation is that prolonged exercise increases intestinal permeability, allowing more allergens to enter. Studies suggest that people who eat causative food before working out show an increase in symptoms. Try an elimination diet to identify which snacks cause you problems and avoid them — particularly before a workout. 

2. Were You Pushing High-Intensity Moves? 

How would you describe your upper abdominal distress? Is it sharp or shooting, or dull or pulling? Either sensation can indicate exercise-related transabdominal pain — what you probably call a side stitch. Fortunately, this ache should subside within a few minutes of stopping movement. If it doesn’t, you might need to consider a different cause and consult a doctor. 

3. Did You Try a New Movement? 

When you work a muscle group that you haven’t previously, you can grow sore quite quickly. If you never did a 2-minute plank hold before, that exercise could be the culprit.  Like side stitches, this pain should fade relatively rapidly, although delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can last for three to five days. 

4. Are You Drinking Enough Water? 

Dehydration can cause nausea and vomiting, as well as muscle cramps. However, you should avoid the temptation to guzzle too quickly. This behavior can spur further stomach upset. The best idea is to sip throughout your workout. 

5. Did You Eat Before Your Workout? 

Eating before your workout can cause severe abdominal distress. Some folks can wolf down a sandwich and then hit the weights, but others require two hours or more. Your body sends blood to your stomach to aid digestion, but when your muscles start to compete for that oxygen-rich resource, what you ate sits in your stomach like a lump. Bouncing on mini-trampoline with a bowling ball in your belly is enough to make anyone queasy. 

When to Seek Medical Attention 

You do need to seek medical care in some circumstances. Here’s when to raise the alarm and visit the ER. 

  • The pain or pressure becomes severe: Unfortunately, there’s no way to chart pain intensity. However, if your abdominal distress keeps getting worse after exercise, please seek medical attention. 
  • You develop a fever: Fever signifies inflammation and infection. 
  • Your skin becomes yellow: Jaundice is the technical term for yellowing of the eyes and skin when you have liver or pancreatic issues. 
  • Your vomiting and diarrhea become severe: Severe vomiting and diarrhea can dehydrate you and cause further health problems. 
  • The pain radiates elsewhere: If your pain seemingly begins in your abdomen but radiates elsewhere, it could be a sign of trouble. For example, women might grow nauseous during a heart attack rather than experience the signature “elephant on the chest.” 
  • Your stomach feels tender to the touch: If touching your belly feels like plucking hot charcoal out of your grill, you might have a severe infection like appendicitis that requires immediate attention. 

Relieve Your Upper Abdominal Pain After Exercise 

Fortunately, upper abdominal pain after exercise rarely results from severe medical issues. Know the signs to look for, and when you should seek care. 

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