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How To Handle A Stitch: What Are The Causes And Remedies?

12th November 2021

12th November 2021

By Beth Shelper

We’ve all been there. The intentions are good, you want to work on reaching your fitness goals, you’re incorporating The Fit Protein into your routine, and you’re dragging yourself out of the house to go on a run or engage in some exercise, and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, you’re stopped in your tracks by a debilitating stabbing pain in your side.

Yep. You guessed it. We’re talking about stitches.

What is a stitch?

We’ve all had them, but when you really think about it, what is a stitch?

In medical terms, a stitch is referred to as exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP) and describes an abdominal pain that is most commonly brought on by exertion and physical activity. Many people describe the sensation of a stich as a sharp, stabbing pain, though some describe the pain as a cramping and pulling feeling.

Stitches. They’re uncomfortable, pretty unnecessary, but unfortunately, very common.

However you describe a stitch, though, we can all agree that they can be painful. Really painful. For that reason alone, it would be great to know what causes a stitch when running, right? It would be one better to know how to prevent a stitch.

What causes a stitch when running?

Exercises that involve rapid movement, particularly in the torso area (such as running and horse riding) are notorious for bringing on a stitch, and for this reason, you may have come across people referring to this ailment as a ‘runners stitch’.

Unfortunately for us, stitches can occur during any type of mid-high intensity exercise, and they can vary in strength. Many suggest that a stitch can be brought on by the weight of organs pressing on the lungs, which consequently restricts oxygen and blood flow, and our performance.

According to an investigation published in the Springer Journal, suggests that there are three reasons for the onset of a stitch: stress, irritation and something called diaphragmatic ischemia, which refers to a restriction of blood flow and oxygen. Makes sense.

The investigation also notes that the intensity and frequency of side stitches decreases over time and with an improvement in a person’s athletic ability. Aka, the fitter you are, the less likely you are to experience this uncomforting sensation.

So, if that’s not motivation to up your fitness levels and whack your running trainers on this evening, we don’t know what is!

What to do when you get a stitch when running

First and foremost: keep running!

We know it might not be the answer you were looking for (sorry) but continuing to run is absolutely the best way to defeat a stitch. We know it hurts. But it works.

When you feel a stitch coming on, begin to slow your pace… it’s normally a sign that your body is overwhelmed.

Bend forwards and apply pressure to the area of pain to try and reduce the intensity. As the pain subsides, you should be able to pace back up to speed. If you really need to stop though, stop!

If your stitch pain really is debilitating, though, don’t push yourself too hard! You’ll do more harm than good. Slow down, stop and walk at a manageable pace with your arms up above your head… this will help stretch out the tightness that you’re feeling. If you really can’t walk around, lie down flat on the ground and elevate your hips.

How to avoid a stitch

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need tactics to reduce the intensity of a stitch or ideas around how to avoid a stitch when running, because they wouldn’t happen in the first place.

In terms of long-term strategies to preventing the onset of a runner’s stitch (or ETAP, for the medically trained amongst us), here are some of our favourite tips and tricks:

  • Don’t eat immediately before your workout
  • Make sure you warm up… properly!
  • Control your breathing
  • Keep a steady pace
  • Stay hydrated (but don’t drink too much at once)
  • Maintain a proper posture
  • Relax!

Summary

Whilst stitches are painful, they’re not uncommon. And they’re definitely nothing to worry about. If this pain is something you are experiencing during exercise only, you can rest easy knowing that this is almost definitely as a result of your exercise-induced exertion, and nothing more serious.

Continue working on those fitness goals, setting your alarm for your morning run (or exercise of choice) and keep our tips in mind when it comes to how to prevent a stitch and all that jazz.

Oh! And remember… you can’t die from a stitch, so don’t panic. They’re a short-term problem and easily dealt with and should pass within a few minutes. Keep running and exercising, Innermosters! We’re all behind you.

Soon stitches will be nothing but a distant memory, and you’ll think “A stitch? What is a stitch?”.

References

  • Eichner, E.R. Stitch in the side: Causes, workup, and solutions. Curr Sports Med Rep5, 289–292 (2006). Click here.

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