Have you heard of diastasis recti, also referred as ‘split’ or ‘separated’ tummy muscles? Or would you go ‘split tummy what??” like so many new mums I work with?
Diastasis Recti is a very common condition in late pregnancy and in the postnatal period, as listed on the NHS website. And yet, it seems, a great majority of new mums have never (or only vaguely) heard of it, and therefore are completely unaware they may actually be suffering from it.
So here are 5 things that you need to know about it.
1 – WHAT IS DIASTASIS RECTI?
Diastasis recti is a condition affecting the rectus abdominal muscles (the ‘6 pack’ muscles) and the connective tissue (the fibres that surround muscles) running along your midline that links up the left and right bands of the rectus (also called the linea alba).
During pregnancy, that connective tissue stretches to accommodate your growing baby, pulling the two bands of muscle apart (although they only very rarely actually split), creating a ‘gap’.
Most bellies recover naturally over time after birth: the connective tissue regains normal tension, and so the midline gap in the rectus narrows back.
But sometimes it just doesn’t happen, or not completely, and the ‘gap’ remains.
Although having a ‘gap’ can feel concerning, ultimately, what actually matters is how much tension can be restored in the connective tissue so that your whole core functions normally, which can be the case even if the gap doesn’t close completely.
2 – DOES IT MATTER?
Unhealed diastasis can be the cause of many core-related issues such as lower back pain, pelvic instability, and is often associated with pelvic floor weakness (urinary leaks and the like) or prolapse. On a superficial level, it can also be the reason why your belly still looks like you’re 5 months pregnant long after birth, even when your body might have already shed the extra water and weight gained during pregnancy.
If you are unaware that you have some degree of diastasis, it is also very easy and common to inadvertently make it worse, and aggravate symptoms, especially by doing unsuitable exercise in a hope to regain a flatter tummy (such as classic crunches or high impact exercise). An unhealed diastasis is also likely to worsen with subsequent pregnancies, increasing the likelihood of symptoms before and after birth, and the effort required to heal it in the postnatal recovery period and beyond.
3 – HOW LIKELY AM I TO HAVE A DIASTASIS?
It is thought that at least 60% if not most women will develop some level of diastasis in late pregnancy.
Most abdominal separation will then heal gradually and naturally in the first 8 to 12 weeks after birth (the ‘Golden Window’ of postnatal recovery), when the body works to re-close and re-knit itself.
However, because research shows that an unhealed diastasis at 3 months postpartum is likely to remain the same at 12 months postpartum, it is really worth supporting your body’s natural healing process as early after birth as you can, such as with simple early days postnatal yoga exercises and attention to your posture. It is also very important to avoid certain movements that can aggravate it or prevent the healing process (such as ‘classic crunches’, some deep twisting movements and lifts, and unsupported transitions from sitting to lying down and from lying to sitting).
4 – HOW CAN I CHECK IF I HAVE DIASTASIS RECTI?
A diastasis is measured by how many finger widths can fit in the ‘gap’ between the two bands of the rectus abdominal muscle, as well as how deep that gap is, i.e. how much tension there is or can be mustered in the connective tissue of the midline.
Although there is some level of debate about the exact measurement, a gap of about 1 finger’s width (or 25mm) is usually considered normal, and 2 fingers’ width considered a mild degree of diastasis.
This quick video illustrates how you can self-check at home the width of your abdominal gap, and the tension in your linea alba. If you are still postpartum / in the postnatal period (first 8 weeks after birth), you can perform this easy check week after week to see how your diastasis is healing.
However, for a thorough assessment, especially if you experience symptoms such as pelvic floor issues or lower back pain, it is always best to see a professional practitioner, such as a women health’s physiotherapist who will measure more accurately the degree of separation, as well as investigate all contributing factors. Frustratingly, diastasis is not routinely checked as part of the postpartum 6-week check offered by GPs, which is why so many women are unaware they may have some degree of it.
If you are still pregnant, you can ask your midwife to check for you.
5 – WHAT CAN I DO TO HEAL MY DIASTASIS RECTI?
If you find you have a diastasis, please don’t panic. Because the most important thing for you to know and remember is that you can heal it, even if you’re years past the postpartum period!
Simple but specific yoga-based movements and practices easy to integrate in your daily routine – yes, even with a young baby around! – combined with adjustments to your posture and breathing (and in some cases, additional physiotherapy-based exercises ) can help you improve or completely restore a diastasis to functional levels.
If you are pregnant, similar but adjusted simple exercises can help you repair, or even prevent it, before your baby comes. Together, these can make a real difference to your overall well-being, and long-term women’s health.
If you would like to explore further how specialist yoga can help you repair or prevent diastasic rectified, just click on Amelies profile at the top of the page.