Why Do We Get Side Cramps?

There's no evidence that side cramps indicate a health problem, but they're an annoying pain that prevents you from doing normal physical activities and sports. Science still hasn't determined exactly what causes this annoyance.
Why Do We Get Side Cramps?
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Most people have probably experienced side cramps at some point. It’s an annoying feeling that torments people who do physical exercise, whether at a competitive level, or just for fun. This uncomfortable pain sometimes makes it impossible to continue since it only calms if the athlete stops.

A side cramp feels like a sharp pain in your side just between your chest and abdomen. Many people wonder if it’s a sign of something dangerous or a symptom caused by an injury in their body. In reality, there’s nothing to fear, even though the pain can become very intense.

To date, scientists don’t have a definitive answer to why we experience side cramps. What they do have is a set of theories that can explain this annoying pain.

Keep reading to learn more!

What is a side cramp?

A side cramp is a sharp and stabbing pain located on the side of your abdominal area. It appears suddenly when you are doing some type of repetitive exercise and often prevents you from continuing the activity normally.

Side cramps are also known as “side stitches”, or just “stitches”, but their medical name is transient abdominal pain (TAP). Scientists believe they don’t come from just one factor but are due to various causes or circumstances.

Side cramps most commonly appear when you do high-energy activities, but mainly when you run. Traditionally, people have associated them with eating food before exercising, but the case of cyclists -who eat during races- seems to debunk that theory.

A man leaning on a wall and holding his side from a side cramp.
A side cramp is an intense pain between the chest and the abdomen. Scientists still don’t know the cause.

Keep reading: Four Natural Ways to Relieve Low Back Pain

Why do we get side cramps?

There’s no definitive conclusion about the causes of side stitches. None of the available studies establish for sure a specific cause.

However, one of the most accepted theories indicates that they happen after continued friction, or tension, in the ligaments that join the diaphragm to the stomach. This friction can cause the peritoneum, a membrane that covers the abdominal cavity, to become irritated.

Others think that this sharp pain is an effect of poor breathing. When your breathing is labored and erratic, it can cause a lack of oxygen in your body and makes the diaphragm restrict itself.

Studies indicate that sports that require high energy use in a short time -like any sport in which you compete for speed- tend to cause side cramps more frequently. In order, the physical activities that most have this problem are:

  • Swimming: 75%
  • Track: 69%
  • Horseback riding: 62%
  • Aerobic exercises: 52%
  • Basketball: 47%
  • Cycling: 32%

What aggravates side cramps?

Clinical experience has managed to determine that some factors increase the risk of pain in your side and that make it more intense, without directly causing stitches. These include:

  • Eating or drinking a lot before exercising: This makes more weight accumulate in your stomach and makes your stomach move more, creating more friction with the diaphragm.
  • Stiffness and hypertonia: Athletes with excessive stiffness in their stabilizing muscles around the spine tend to suffer side cramps more often.
  • The intensity of the exercise: The more intense, the higher the risk of side pain.

Both men and women seem to suffer from this problem, without much difference. Some studies have noticed that young people are more likely to have this problem, while it’s less frequent in older people.

Woman resting from exercise in the gym.
Side cramps that you get from exercise can make you stop because of their intensity.

Things to keep in mind to prevent stitches

Even though they don’t know exactly why side cramps happen, some practices have been shown to be effective to avoid or prevent them. We recommend the following:

  • Maintain a healthy diet: Digestive problems increase the risk of side pain.
  • Avoid aggressive swaying of the torso.
  • Breathe regularly and uniformly.
  • Strengthen your abdominal area and train your breathing.
  • Don’t eat a lot before doing intense physical activities.
  • Only drink small amounts of water while exercising, but do it frequently. Don’t drink a lot of liquid at once.

If you get a side stitch, the best thing to do is reduce your pace and press your hands on the area of your abdomen where you feel pain. If the discomfort continues, you should stop, regulate your breathing, and stretch your abdomen.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Pérez, C. Ayán. “Dolor abdominal transitorio vinculado al ejercicio: causas y soluciones.” Revista Andaluza de Medicina del Deporte 3.3 (2010): 103-109.
  • Domínguez, R. “Aproximación al dolor abdominal transitorio.” Apuntes del Máster de Fisiología del Ejercicio. Universidad de Barcelona–Editorial Médica Panamericana (2013).

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.