Despite being one of the most common conditions women endure in relation to pregnancy, information and resources on diastasis recti are scarce, and even the pronunciation is tough! Fear not, I will break down all things diastasis recti (DR) below in a simple and easy-to-understand way.
What is diastasis recti?
The word “diastasis” means separation, and “recti” refers to the rectus abdominis muscle. When there is too much pressure applied to the core unit, the linea alba ends up getting weaker and thus, not able to do its job of keeping the two sides together! In short, diastasis recti (DR) is when the right and left sides of the rectus abdominis muscle (your “6-pack” muscles) move wider apart due to a thinning and weakening of a connective tissue called the linea alba, which is normally what holds the two sides together. A small separation is normal and expected, but a separation greater than about two fingers is considered diastasis. Typically, it’s due to the fascia in the abdominal wall being too weak or tight in the wrong places.
What causes diastasis recti?
It all comes down to one cause: excess intra-abdominal pressure. In other words, think of your growing belly like an expanding balloon. As you blow air into the balloon, the pressure continues to build inside it. After a certain point, if you continue to force air inside, the balloon will eventually pop.
All your abdominal muscle layers are connected at the front midline of your body by the linea alba. Think of the linea alba tissue like “silly putty;” it’s strong, but flexible. If consistent and excessive outward pressure is placed on that tissue (like from a growing belly during pregnancy), then it eventually thins and stretches out so much that its consistency becomes more like cellophane, and it loses its ability to hold anything together. When this happens, your outermost muscle layer–rectus abdominis–begins to drift apart.
What factors make someone more susceptible to getting diastasis recti?
DR can occur in anyone at any time–men and women! Any factor that causes consistent and excessive intra-abdominal pressure can cause it. However, you can see why it’s so common during pregnancy due to the excess pressure that an expanding belly creates.
In fact, it’s important to note that every woman experiences at least some degree of DR during the third trimester of pregnancy. If managed properly during pregnancy and if the appropriate measures and rehab is performed postpartum, DR can resolve within a short time period after delivery. However, excessive intra-abdominal pressure and not performing the correct movements can cause the diastasis to remain in the postpartum period and long beyond.
Factors that increase a woman’s likelihood of getting it include:
- Forceful “bearing down” during strenuous activity (constipation, vomiting, etc)
- Weak deep core muscles
- Being pregnant with multiples
- Having a shorter torso (baby has less room to grow up and down, so it forces belly out more)
- Failure to rehab core and pelvic floor appropriately postpartum
- Rapid or excessive weight gain (the larger the belly, the more pressure)
- Performing improper core exercises during pregnancy
How can this affect me?
From an aesthetic perspective, DR leads to a “pooch” appearance in your belly. What you see are abdominal contents protruding through the separation caused by the thin and weakened linea alba.
There are other implications that are extremely important beyond the appearance. For instance, DR may indicate a weak and ineffective core. This can lead to several problems including constipation, low back pain, pelvic or hip pain, incontinence, and bladder or rectal prolapse. It can also put you at greater risk for developing a hernia, which requires surgery to fix. Correcting and preventing DR is beyond appearance, it’s to help you feel better, and prevent injury and other complications.
Why is this so common?
Well, for one, it is often not discussed in your typical appointment with your provider. Furthermore, not all fitness trainers are equipped to understand how to prevent DR to some degree nor do they understand the means to work towards resolving it. For instance, it can be brought on by doing crunches or other inappropriate core/ab exercises. If over the years, you’ve done a lot of crunches or abdominal exercises that are super intense and in traditional crunch style, this can lead to stress in the abdomen which puts stress toward the pelvic floor. Also, if you are not aware of what can exacerbate DR or how to adapt simple techniques to prevent it, it is quite inevitable.
Can I prevent diastasis recti?
There can be some abdominal separation during pregnancy, but yes, it can be highly prevented to some degree! The reason I say that is because obviously all bodies are different. During pregnancy and postpartum, it is not 100% preventable, BUT you can work to prevent the severity of diastasis recti–which is huge.
When you learn how to properly activate your deep core, and how to release and relax (especially during pregnancy), you can start waking up the fascial connections of your body. Pregnancy is the best time to learn about your core and engage it appropriately. Don’t tune your core out during this opportune time, in fact–pregnancy is an ideal time to activate these muscles.
Interested in learning more about DR? Download The SnapBack app and take the DR assessment. And there’s more to learn about postpartum recovery beyond DR. The SnapBack brings delivery-based (c-section vs. vaginal) rehab exercises, feeding trackers, diaper logs, article resources, and a new community feature (coming soon!) where mothers can anonymously ask questions, all into one app!
Remember, all pregnancies, bodies, and postpartum experiences are different. Please consult your physician before making any changes to your postpartum recovery routine.