Diastasis recti, or separation of the abdominal muscles, is a common side effect of pregnancy, yet many expectant and new moms don’t even know what it is, let alone whether or not they have it.
The rectus abdominis muscle is the vertically-oriented “six pack” muscle that is susceptible to splitting open when the uterus grows upward out of the pelvis. The two sides of the muscle are held together by a fibrous connective tissue. The strain on the muscle can cause that tissue to open like a zipper above and below the belly button. It sounds terrible, but the separation itself is surprisingly painless because the connective tissue has no nerve supply. What you will feel, though, is an achy low back after the muscles start to open. Why? Because the muscles lose their mechanical advantage once they separate, so they become weak and no longer protect the low back.
Wondering how the abdominal muscles, on the front of the body, protect the lower back? All the abs muscles work together as a team, acting as a corset to support the lumbar spine. A large part of the stability in the lumbar spine comes from that abdominal muscle corset. So when a major player on that team is injured, it can’t perform, and you lose function.
What does this mean for you?
It means an achy lower back. Sound familiar? So even though you don’t feel the actual separation, you do feel the resulting lumbar pain due to the weakened abs.
What can you do?
First off, test yourself to see if you already have a separation. If you do, you must modify activities during pregnancy to avoid increasing the separation.
The test: Lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat, place your fingers on your tummy an inch above your navel, pointing toward your knees. Press your low back flat, then tuck your chin to lift your head and shoulders off the floor. You should feel the two sides of the rectus abdominis muscle with your fingers. If you can get fewer than three fingers into the gap side-to-side, the separation is considered within normal range.
If you have diastasis recti of 3-finger width or more: If you are pregnant, you should stop abdominal exercises and do other exercises until after baby comes.
Lying on your back with knees bent, cross your arms in front of your body and place your hands on your sides. Press inward with your hands as you press your low back flat and tuck your chin to lift your head off the floor, while simultaneously drawing the hands closer together to bring both sides of the rectus abdominis muscle together. Count to five and relax.
If you've had your baby, you can do exercises to help bring the gap back together, incorportating the splinting technique into gentle abdominal exercises.