Abdominal strains and hernias are both painful conditions that tend to 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, determining which it is will determine how you treat the condition.
Do You Have a Hernia or Strained Abdominal Muscle?
An abdominal strain is the stretching, tearing or rupturing of abdominal muscles. The condition is also commonly referred to as a pulled abdominal muscle. 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 especially intense exercise
- Vigorous coughing, sneezing or laughing
- Any other activity that engages the abdominal muscles with excessive force
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
A hernia is a condition in which an internal organ or body part protrudes through the wall of tissue or muscle that contains it. 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. 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 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.
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.