How to Tell If You Have a Pulled Abdominal Muscle or Hernia
Medically Reviewed by Baptist Health
Abdominal strains and hernias are painful conditions that worsen with activity and lessen with rest. However, they have different causes and unique sets of symptoms. If you believe you are suffering from one or the other, discovering which it is will determine how you treat the condition.
Do You Have a Hernia or Strained Abdominal Muscle?
What is an Abdominal Strain?
An abdominal muscle strain is the stretching, tearing or rupturing of abdominal muscles. The condition is also commonly referred to as a pulled abdominal muscle.
What is a Hernia?
A hernia is a condition in which an internal organ or body part protrudes through the wall of tissue or muscle that contains it.
Common types of hernias include:
- Inguinal hernia
- Femoral hernia
- Umbilical hernia
- Hiatal (hiatus) hernia
- Incisional hernia
- Epigastric hernia
- Spigelian hernia
- Diaphragmatic hernia
You may be asking yourself, ‘How common are hernias?’. As much as 10% of the population will experience a hernia in their life, and more than 1 Million hernia repair procedures are performed each year in the United States. An inguinal hernia is the most common type of hernia. Of all hernias, inguinal or femoral hernias make up between 75-80%, incisional hernias make up 2%, umbilical hernias make up 3 to 10%, and other types of hernias fill in the other 1 to 3%.
Causes of Abdominal Strains vs. Hernias
Abdominal Muscle Strain Causes
There are a number of activities that can cause an abdominal strain, including:
- Lifting heavy objects, especially with improper lifting technique
- Sudden twisting of the torso
- Excessive or very intense exercise
- Vigorous coughing, sneezing, or laughing
- Any other activity that engages the abdominal muscles with excessive force
While a hernia may develop over time as tissues or muscles lose their strength, the same activities that result in an abdominal strain can cause or worsen a hernia. Ultimately, any activity that causes an increase in pressure in the abdomen can cause a hernia, including:
- Lifting heavy objects without first stabilizing the abdominal muscles
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Persistent coughing or sneezing
Abdominal Strain vs. Hernia Symptoms
What Does a Strained Abdominal Muscle Feel Like?
The surface of your stomach area may feel tender and inflamed if you have a strained abdominal muscle. Other symptoms include sudden sharp pain, and you’re more likely to feel these sensations when you’re contracting your abdominal muscles and moving.
Symptoms of an abdominal strain can include:
- Sharp pain
- Tenderness and swelling
- Weakness in the abdominal muscles
- Muscle spasms
- Stiffness and inability to stretch the muscle
What Does a Hernia Feel Like?
Typically, patients with hernias describe mild pain, aching, or a pressure sensation at the hernia site. The discomfort worsens with any activity that puts a strain on the abdomen, such as heavy lifting, running, or bearing down during bowel movements.
Depending on what body parts are involved, the symptoms of an abdominal hernia can include:
- Pain or discomfort in the affected area
- Bulge or lump in the abdomen
- Burning or aching sensation
Abdominal Strain vs. Hernia Treatment
Abdominal Strain Treatment
Abdominal strains are treated in generally the same way as other pulled muscles, starting with rest. You can also initially apply a cold pack to the area to minimize swelling, and later apply heat to increase blood flow and speed healing. Over-the-counter pain relievers can be used to minimize discomfort.
Once the symptoms have subsided, you can help prevent a recurrence by performing core-strengthening exercises regularly. You are also less likely to strain an abdominal muscle if you warm-up and stretch before exercising, increase the intensity of your exercise program gradually, give your abdominals some rest each week and maintain good posture.
In general, hernias are not immediately life-threatening. However, they do not go away on their own and may require surgery. Failure to address a hernia can lead to serious complications including bowel obstruction and death of tissue that gets trapped in the hernia sac, losing its blood supply—a condition known as a strangulated or incarcerated hernia.
Abdominal Strain vs. Hernia Overview
Both of these issues require immediate medical attention. Their warning signs can include increased tenderness and swelling, severe pain, inability to pass gas or have a bowel movement, fever, pale skin, cold sweats, dizziness, and fainting.
|Bulge in abdomen||X|
|Pain in abdomen that worsens with movement||X||X|
|Nausea and vomiting||X|
|Sudden muscle spasms or cramping||X|
|Improper lifting of heavy objects||X||X|
|Sudden or fast movements||X|
|Increase in pressure on the abdomen.||X|
|Diarrhea or constipation||X|
|Persistent coughing or sneezing||X||X|
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