pregnancy

Diastasis recti happens to 60 per cent of women after childbirth. Here's what you should know.

Women have to put up with A LOT of stuff during pregnancy - especially when it comes to changes in their body. Those tiny little aliens can really mess things up. 

And while some of these changes are a little more well known than others (hey, hair loss), others you don't really hear about.

Diastasis recti abdominis (DRA) is one of these.

It's a condition that happens to all women while they're pregnant and affects around 60 per cent of women after they've given birth. However, for something so common it's rarely discussed - and often dismissed.

Watch: Things pregnant people never say. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

If you're not familiar with diastasis recti, it's basically a condition where the abdominal muscles stretch and separate to make room for your growing baby. It sounds like something out of a horror film, but it's totally normal. 

The good news is that once your little friend has been delivered, your muscles will usually start contracting back together over the next three to six months. 

Listen: On this episode of The Delivery Room, we learn all about the realities of a planned C-Section. Post continues below.

However, this doesn't always happen. Sometimes the connective tissue can be so stretched out that it loses its ability to shrink back into position - causing a gap between the abdominal muscles. It can then cause all kinds of different problems, ranging from back pain to incontinence. 

Here, we hit up some experts and take a look at everything you should know about diastasis recti, including how to know if you have it.

What causes diastasis recti?

"We have a pair of large muscles in the abdomen called the rectus abdominis. These muscles can be weakened due to certain conditions, most commonly rapid expansion of the abdominal cavity during pregnancy," explains GP and skin cancer physician Dr Imaan Joshi from Skin Essentials

"This can cause these muscles to separate, leading to a gap and weakness."

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Postpartum, the condition tends to appear as slightly lax skin around the belly button region.

"Sounds grim, but it's really a very natural and painless thing the body does in order to accommodate a whole human inside of you," said Kat Suchet from Hatch Athletic

"One hundred per cent of women in their third trimester will have a diastasis recti abdominis. Many women will have a remaining diastasis recti after they've given birth, and anything up to a two centimetre gap is considered quite normal." 

"This is when the abdominals don’t come together again like they used to, leaving more of a ‘gap.' This is largely due to a more permanently stretched linea alba or a reduced elasticity in the connective tissue between your abdominals."

While it's super common for women to experience abdominal separation after childbirth, pregnancy isn’t the only cause. 

Diastasis recti can affect both men and non-postpartum people, too - sometimes caused by vigorous activity or excessive pressure. "Other less common causes can be rapid changes in weight and increased fat deposition around the abdomen," said Dr Joshi.

How do you know if you have diastasis recti?

"The best way to learn about your own abdominal wall is to go and see a women’s health physiotherapist," said Suchet.

"If the private route simply isn't an option or you can't access a women’s health physio, then I’ll describe how you can do an at-home assessment. Before I start, please try not to get too hung up on the measurement. There isn't a magic number of centimetres that will tell you if you have a functional abdominal wall or not (more on this later)!"

Suchet said to start off lying flat on your back with your knees bent, and your feet on the floor. 

"Lift a hand towards your tummy and find the middle of your abs. Lift your head and move your chin towards your chest in a mini crunch position, rolling only your upper body and shoulders off the floor," she explains.

"Start from just below your rib cage and then work downwards towards your belly button and towards your pubic bone, by gently pushing your fingers downwards fairly firmly."

Suchet demonstrates. Image: Supplied 

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"You may need to wriggle your fingers around a bit to get your bearings - you should feel your abs and then, potentially, a gap. If it's a big gap you may even be able to slide your finger/s from side to side between the gap," said Suchet.

"The number of fingers you can fit side-by-side (width ways) between the muscle is a crude indication of how many centimetres gap you have."

What issues can diastasis recti cause if untreated?

While it's often thought of as an 'aesthetic' issue, it's often not really talked about and many people aren't informed about what they can do to treat it.

Because the fact is, abdominal separation is not a totally harmless thing. Without proper treatment, a lot of different issues can arise.

As Suchet mentioned above, the measurement of your gap is really not important, however what is important is finding out if you’re able to maintain good tension across the gap itself. 

"This shows if you have good function. And when it comes to diastasis, function, or tension, is everything. It’s a bit more complex to check your own function from home but it’s a good idea to get checked if you establish there is a marked diastasis there," explains Suchet.

"The reason being, that left untreated, if you’re unable to generate decent tension across the gap, your abdominal wall is therefore, to all intents and purposes, more exposed and vulnerable."

"This can lead to reduced strength and control around your midsection, or what we call core stability. This can lead to complications such as back pain and other spinal complaints and pelvic floor dysfunction." 

All of which sound... not great.

However, it's important to note that it is treatable - and the earlier you address it the better chance your connective tissue has of healing back together.

"It will pay dividends getting yours checked now, so that you’ve got an action plan to help get yours as strong and as functional as it can be," said Suchet.

What's the best way to fix it?

The best way to improve diastasis recti is by doing specific types of exercises to help repair the tissue. 

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"Commonly there are two elements in diastasis that clients want to improve. First is the function, tension and strength that we discussed. But secondly, and granted it’s still important, many women want to ‘close the gap’ because of the aesthetic changes that comes with diastasis," said Suchet. 

"With regards to function, as strange as it sounds, the first step is to organise your breath. As the diaphragm and the pelvic floor are two of your key of your core muscles, organising these two key players to coordinate themselves plays a huge role in the rehab of a diastasis, and without the correct breathing, we can do ourselves a huge disservice by ploughing into our ‘abs’ rehab too quickly."

Here's a quick explainer video Suchet made if you don't know where to start.

According to Suchet, once your breathing technique is down pat, your physiotherapist will usually prescribe you some personalised exercises. 

"Loading and tension is very beneficial in actually helping the connective tissue to reorganise itself. As a result, exercises prescribed for diastasis tend to be very core focussed, but those that don’t demand a lot of abdominal bracing," said Suchet.

Cool! So, what does this all mean? 

"The exercises tend to look very similar to many you’d see in a mat-work pilates class, and we also progress clients to work on rotation stability and anti-rotation stability exercises."

Image: Getty 

By sticking to the exercises prescribed to you by your physiotherapist, you'll be able to repair diastasis recti to a greater or lesser extent. 

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When it comes to the aesthetic side of things, Suchet said this is usually something that is addressed on a case-by-case basis

"Some women’s diastasis will reduce over time, others' won’t. Some women will manage to end up with a tummy they’re comfortable with and others won’t. Some of this is purely aesthetic and some of it is quite a mental battle. After all, having a baby can mean some big changes to your body that takes some getting used to. It’s not easy...

"All of this takes time and doesn’t happen with miracle bikini-body promising programs. Be kind to yourself. Most women, when working with the right professionals and surrounding themselves in the correct support network can, in time, get to a point of being more accepting of and even very pleased with their new postpartum physique."

If you're not sure whether you have diastasis recti, try the method above. Above all, don't stress - it's an extremely common condition and as proven above, one that is completely treatable. 

As always, if something doesn't feel right, seek advice from a professional.

"Please don’t be afraid. I think a lot of a fear around diastasis is in the not knowing," said Suchet. 

"Arm yourself with good, honest knowledge from professionals and try to steer clear of the fear mongering that can be rife on the internet."

Have you ever had diastasis recti? Share your experience with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty

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