If you are a woman who has been, is, or will be pregnant, you may have heard of diastasis recti. Interestingly enough, this can actually effect anyone, including men and children. So what is it?
The rectus abdominus muscles are the most superficial layer of abdominal muscle, and are commonly known as the “6 pack” muscles. There are 2 bands of muscles running up and down, separated and held together by connective tissue called the linea alba. During pregnancy, this tissue often becomes visible, darkening in a condition known as linea nigra, caused by a hormone produced in the placenta. You may see this as a darker line running up and down the centre of the belly. In very muscular individuals, you may see this tissue as a depression between the two rows of abdominal muscles.
Diastasis rectus abdominus (DRA) is very common during pregnancy (30 – 60% of women will experience this condition during or after pregnancy). Essentially, the linea alba is continuously stretched, and gradually loses tension, allowing the muscle bellies of rectus abdominus to separate. After birth, the muscles do not automatically return to their original position, and the linea alba does not produce tension in the same way that it once did. With careful rehabilitative work, it is possible to restore much of the function of the linea alba in many cases, although occasionally, surgery may be recommended. It is much more important to restore the function of the connective tissue than it is to “close the gap” between the muscle bellies.
While we don’t fully understand all of the factors that contribute to DRA, there are some recommendations about activities to avoid to minimize the risk of more severe cases. It is thought that exceptionally tight rectus abdominus muscles that are unable to relax and stretch efficiently may be a cause, therefore exercises like crunches and planks should not be practiced during pregnancy. It is possible that extreme back bending during pregnancy can worsen the condition, as doing so causes more stress on the muscles and connective tissues.
If you think that you may have DRA, just remember that there are many factors that are out of your control, and you did not “cause” it. There are so many things that can be done to help restore healthy function to the linea alba. It is a good idea to check with your doctor or physiotherapist before returning to exercise after pregnancy to be assessed to DRA, and if you are unfamiliar with rehab exercises, consult with your physio or a postnatal fitness specialist to find out what can help and what may worsen the condition.