Hernia vs. Pulled Muscle: How To Tell the Difference

Hernia vs. Pulled Muscle: How To Tell the Difference

Unless you actively strength train your abs, abdominals are a type of muscle crucial to daily human activities, but that often go under the radar—until you suddenly experience sore or sharp pain.

Hernias and pulled abdominal muscles both involve the abdomen. But they impact it in different ways, and the treatment for overcoming these conditions is significantly different.

Read on to learn about whether the pain you’re experiencing could be from a hernia or pulled muscle, how to treat it, and ways to prevent it from happening again.

Shared Symptoms of a Hernia and Pulled Muscle

Here’s the good news: Determining whether you have a hernia or pulled muscle is straightforward, given that they mostly have different causes and symptoms. 

Nevertheless, below are a couple of symptoms that hernias and pulled muscles share:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Pain that worsens with movement

Hernias and pulled muscles may also both originate from heavy lifting. You can also develop a hernia or have abdominal strain through a pulled muscle by constant sneezing and coughing.

Hernia-Specific Symptoms

Below are some tell-tale signs that you have a hernia instead of a pulled muscle:

  • A bulge in your abdomen
  • Aching or burning feeling
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea

That said, a noticeable difference between hernias and pulled abdominal muscles is that hernias usually don’t start as being painful. Instead, they gradually develop an achy or burning pain as they get bigger.

Should you have a hernia that’s causing sharp pains, it could be a sign of a strangulated hernia, which is a life-threatening condition. In that case, it’s crucial to go to the doctor immediately, as they may need to perform emergency surgery.

Although not everyone needs surgery to treat hernias, it’s wise to see a doctor if you believe you have one so that they can monitor your hernia’s growth.

Pulled Muscle-Specific Symptoms

If you have a pulled stomach muscle, you’ll have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Bruising
  • Cramping
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Muscle spasms

Most notably, you won’t see any lumps or bulges protruding from your stomach if you have a pulled muscle. You might have some inflammation, but unlike a hernia, there’s often no way to see a pulled muscle situation.

Pulled abdominal muscles can also happen in many parts around your abdominal wall, including the sides of your stomach where your obliques sit. In contrast, hernias often occur in specific areas, such as around your groin, belly button, or where you’ve previously had surgery.

How a Pulled Abdominal Muscle Happens

Most people have tried to get six-pack abs at some point. But few people consider whether it’s possible to pull an abdominal muscle until they have pain. So, can you pull a muscle in your stomach?

Yes, you can. Pulled abdominal muscles happen primarily from overusing your stomach muscles. It’s a common scenario among athletes or people with labor-intensive jobs that frequently rely on their abdominal muscles to lift heavy objects.

That said, abdominal strain happens in other ways too. For example, if you have an accident that causes you an abdomen strain, such as falling off a roof or being in a motorcycle crash, you can experience a pulled abdomen muscle too.

Types of Pulled Muscles

There are three main muscle groups you can pull in your abdomens. They include:

  • Obliques
  • Rectus abdominus
  • Transversus abdominus

The obliques are side muscles composed of external and internal varieties. They allow you to twist your midsection. It’s common to pull an oblique muscle if you twist your body too sharply, including during an ab workout.

In contrast, rectus abdominus are the muscles that give you a six-pack appearance. They allow movement between your pelvis and ribs, so these muscles can often get pulled during heavy exercise or lifting.

Transversus abdominus is the least-known type of ab muscle you can pull, given that it sits deep within your stomach. These muscles protect your organs and can become injured the same way as your other abdominal muscles, although you might pull them more easily via sneezing or coughing bouts.

How a Hernia Happens

If you’re asking yourself, “What does a torn stomach feel like?” you likely have a hernia on your hands. Hernias are a more serious condition than pulled muscles because they happen when one of your internal organs pokes through a weak area of your abdominal wall.

Some people have a predisposition to hernias because they have a weak area in their abdominal muscles since birth. But in many cases, people develop hernias from repetitive situations involving lifting heavy weights, the force from diarrhea or pushing from constipation, coughing, or sneezing.

While it’s possible for a hernia to happen after a single incident, especially if a person is predisposed to this condition from birth, it most commonly occurs over time from repetition, causing the connective tissues in your abdominal muscles to break down.

Types of Hernias

Several different kinds of hernias exist, and your doctor will be able to pinpoint the type you have. Examples of the types of hernias a person can develop are:

  • Femoral
  • Hiatal
  • Inguinal
  • Incisional
  • Diaphragmatic
  • Epigastric

The most common type of hernia is inguinal, which can occur directly or indirectly. In both cases, the bowel pushes through a portion of the abdominal muscles and into the groin area. 

Direct hernias develop from external factors, such as lifting, coughing, being pregnant, or having constipation. In contrast, indirect inguinal hernias happen when the inguinal canal doesn’t close before birth. Such a situation is most common in men.

Treatment Strategies

When comparing a hernia vs. pulled muscle, the way you approach treating these conditions varies significantly. For this reason, if you’re unsure about which issue you have, it’s vital to see a doctor. While most people can treat abdominal muscle strain at home, they often need medical intervention for hernias.

Treating Pulled Abdominal Muscles

Some of the best ways to heal a pulled abdominal muscle include:

  • Icing the affected area
  • Anti-inflammatory medicine
  • Using heating pads
  • Resting your muscles
  • Abdominal braces

It’s common to feel sore two to three days after a workout due to a condition called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

So, if you suddenly feel mild soreness in your abdominal muscles within 72 hours after working out, there’s likely little cause for concern; the pain from this microscopic damage to your muscle tissues is normal.

Some fitness experts advocate for it being okay to exercise abdominals despite DOMS. However, if your abdominal pain feels crippling or you know that you didn’t get the pain from an intentional workout, letting your abdominal muscles fully rest is crucial.

Provided you’re sure that the abdominal pain you’re feeling is from a pulled muscle in the stomach and not a hernia, there’s no need to see a doctor. Treating a pulled abdominal muscle at home is cheap and easy.

Treating Hernias

Treating a hernia is more complex than a pulled muscle. People can’t treat hernias on their own—once an organ passes through the abdominal muscles, there’s no going back without surgery.

However, those with mild inguinal hernia cases sometimes choose to put up with the occasional pain they feel when they twist a certain way. They may also use cold compresses and avoid lifting heavy objects to prevent the situation from worsening.

But in most cases, doctors recommend that patients with hernias get surgery to remove the issue and the complications that can form from them. Hernia surgery is typically outpatient, and it’s common—over one million people have hernia surgery each year, about 800,000 of which are of the inguinal type.

Your doctor will opt for one of two types of surgery to fix your hernia:

  • Laparoscopic surgery
  • Open repair surgery

It’s common for surgeons to place some surgical mesh in your abdomen as part of the surgery, particularly if you have a large hernia. Doing so reduces the chances of the hernia returning and prevents you from having a second surgery. 

Prevention Methods

By now, you hopefully have a grasp of whether you have a hernia or pulled muscle. So, as you’re nursing your condition back to health, below are some ways you can prevent either of these conditions from returning in the future.

Preventing Pulled Abdominal Muscles

There are several strategies you can implement to reduce the chances of a pulled muscle in your stomach from happening. Before you exercise, it’s crucial to warm up with dynamic stretching versus static stretches.  

If you plan on lifting weights, consider hiring the support of a trainer so that you can learn the proper technique. Doing so will decrease the chances of you pulling an abdominal muscle in the process. You should then use static stretches after your workout to prevent soreness in your abs.

Other ways to reduce the chances of pulling a muscle in your abdominals include:

  • Allowing time to recover between workouts
  • Drinking lots of water
  • Improving your posture
  • Eating healthy

It’s also important to listen to your body. Whether you’re working out or lugging around boxes as you prepare to move homes, it’s easy to push yourself and overwork your abdominal muscles. 

That’s when you have one of the highest chances of getting a pulled muscle. And doing so will push your workout or move your timeline back further than if you give your ab muscles some well-deserved rest.

Preventing Hernias

Unfortunately, hernias are difficult to prevent, especially if you have a predisposition to weakened abdominal muscles from birth. 

Nevertheless, below are some tools you can implement to reduce a hernia from happening or make it easier on your body if you develop one:

  • Don’t lift heavy weights
  • Avoid alcohol consumption
  • Eat small portions more often
  • Don’t exercise on a full stomach

Although you should never stop yourself from sneezing or coughing, when you feel the need to do either, don’t put any more strain into it than necessary.

The quality of the food you eat matters when you’re trying to avoid developing a hernia. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, and quality protein can help reduce the risk of a hernia.

Once you eat, stop yourself from bending over or laying down until you have some time to digest. You can also wear an abdominal hernia belt or binder to keep the organ bulging out of your abdominal wall from being uncomfortable and noticeable when you’re in public.


When To Call a Doctor

If you suspect you have a hernia, make a doctor’s appointment. Hernias can turn into a life-threatening condition if they become strangulated, meaning that they cut off blood flow to trapped tissue.

When you’re contemplating whether you have a hernia or pulled muscle, remember that hernias produce a greater array of health issues, such as nausea and vomiting. So, if your abdominal muscles feel sore and nothing more, you likely pulled a muscle and can heal it at home.