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.

hernia types and locations

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

Hernia Causes

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
  • Bruising
  • 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
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Constipation

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.

Hernia Treatment

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.

SymptomsStrainHernia
Bulge in abdomen X
Pain in abdomen that worsens with movement X X
Bruising X
Aching/burning sensation X
Nausea and vomiting X
Sudden muscle spasms or cramping X
Muscle stiffness X
CausesStrainHernia
Intense exercising 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
Recommended TreatmentStrainHernia
Surgery X
Abdominal binder X X
Applying ice X X
Applying heat X
Over-the-counter drugs X

Learn More or Seek Help from Baptist Health

If you’re suffering from abdominal pain, Baptist Health is here to help. Find a provider near you today, or learn more about the services available at Baptist Health.


Next Steps and Useful Resources

Find a Provider
Does Your Hernia Require Surgery?
Common Types of Hernias
Headed for a Hernia

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