The Vague Medical Explanation for Side Stitch

By Jana Taylor

I am not a runner.   I am an occasional slow-plodder.   Because of that inconsistency in my running life, I have often been the victim of the dreaded side stitch.   Everyone who has ever run, whether in high school track or for exercise later in life, knows the feeling and we all try different things we’ve heard to prevent these painful cramps with dubious results.   I’ve heard everything from you should only breathe through your nose to you should punch yourself in the stomach at the first sign of pain.    Neither of these things will work and I would argue that punching yourself in the stomach may make things worse. At best, people may wonder if you are psychotic if they see you standing there beating yourself up.  Contrary to what you may have heard, side stitches also do not exclusively affect runners.  In truth, any activity that twists the upper body can trigger them like swimming and even horseback riding.

runningSide stitches have a medical name: exercise-related transient abdominal pain, or ETAP.  If you think because it has a medical term there is also a treatment you are mistaken.   For all the advancements in medicine and science we’ve made this is one that has eluded the smartest among us, however, there are some things we’ve learned about them.  For instance, we know they tend to occur most in younger people.   The older you get, the less ETAP you experience (one of the few benefits of getting old)!  The more consistently you exercise the less frequently they will occur which may be enough motivation to keep you going.   Here’s an interesting fact: half of the people who experience ETAP say they are triggered by drinking or eating before activity and further lab research showed that consuming high sugar liquids was more likely to trigger cramps – twice as much, in fact, than beverages with no sugar.

There is further speculation that experiencing ETAP may have to do with jolting movements causing stress to the ligaments in the diaphragm.  Still, others say bad posture is a contributing factor. None of these have been proven and it’s all speculative.

When it all comes down to it, having ETAP is not life-threatening and is merely a temporary annoyance.  The most practical advice is to track your activities before and during exercise.  Note what you ate or didn’t eat, keep track of how much liquid you drank, and note your posture and see if you can spot any trends.   But most importantly, recognize what works for someone else may not be the correct approach for you!

Jana Taylor  Jana Taylor is a staff writer for Peaceful Mountain.