Abdominal muscle separation (or Diastasis Recti) is a completely normal and necessary part of pregnancy. As your baby grows your abdominal area accommodates by stretching the skin, muscles and connective tissue. During this process the line down the middle of your abdominals (known as your Linea Alba) stretches also and this increases the distance between the two sides of your rectus muscles.
Most women will notice some abdominal muscle separation in their third trimester or towards the end of pregnancy and this is part of the reason that we recommend that you cease exercises that load the rectus muscles (also known as your 6 pack muscles!) during pregnancy (like sit ups and planks etc). Before pregnancy, the rectus muscles are in 2 fairly straight lines down your abdomen (see image above), during pregnancy, as the linea alba stretches and separates (again, this is normal) these muscles are now on more of a curve and therefore their mechanics (how they help your body move) has changed! The research isn't quite there yet but it makes sense not to load muscles when they are stretched over a growing baby/not in their optimal functional position!
There are many factors that we think might affect how large your gap may be during/after pregnancy, including:
Again, these are very much factors that remain to be further researched but we think they might have some influence on Diastasis Recti.
So! What does this mean as a mum?
After you have had a baby you may notice that your abdominals do not feel or look the same as they did before pregnancy. Approximately more than half of women will have a gap in their abdominals at 8 weeks post birth which means that this is a very common issue postpartum and something that I see a lot of in the clinic.
The biggest issue? Abdominal separation is linked to lower back and pelvic pain as the abdominal wall is part of the structures responsible for keeping your pelvis strong as well as protecting and supporting your spine! Whilst aesthetically your abdominals may look different or you notice a gap, or a doming in the centre, there is also the possibility for the physical strength in your abdominal wall to have been reduced (with or without a gap being present!).
Gaps can vary from 2-3cm wide and 12-15cm in length to 12-20cm widths and the full length of the abdominals. Some of these gaps reduce quickly, some don't. Some of these gaps are supported by great functioning TA (transverse abdominis muscle) and core muscles, some are not.
So what can a Physiotherapist help with?
A physiotherapist who has experience in working with postpartum women can assess your core function, ascertain if there is any Diastasis Recti present, assess basic pelvic floor control and function (no vaginal exam!), assess pelvic control and strength and postpartum posture! All of these components have an affect on pain, control, return to exercise and fitness activities so it is very important to get assessed so that you can get strong for all the varied activities of motherhood and for your active lifestyle!
A physiotherapist can help to re-educate your abdominal wall function, help you strengthen and improve your control and support your daily activities. Generally this is done through learning proper breathing mechanics, posture, activation and of course - exercises!!
Will I need surgery?
This is a really common question and not one that we can answer easily. Surgery is potentially indicated in large diastases or when severe dysfunction is present. However! It is really important to start learning how to build strength and tension in the anterior abdominal wall so physiotherapy management pre-surgery and post surgery is also often indicated.
It's best to come and see the experts for assessment rather than fretting on your own as to what might be going on (or consulting Dr Google). Come and see Kate in the clinic to put your mind at ease and have you on the road to recovery today!
Kate is an exceptionally passionate individual when it comes to all things Women's Health, fitness and well-being.