Understanding Abdominal Separation (Diastasis Recti): Causes, Symptoms, and Physiotherapy Treatment Options

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Have you ever wondered about abdominal separation? It’s a condition that might not be on everyone’s radar, but it holds significant importance for our health. 

Abdominal separation, also known as diastasis recti, is when the ‘six-pack’ muscles, or the rectus abdominis, split along the body’s midline. This can happen during pregnancy as the uterus expands or even through improper exercise techniques.

But there’s more to it than meets the eye. It’s not just about looks; this separation can lead to physical issues like back pain and weakened core stability.

That’s where our skilled physiotherapists at Movement Laboratory come in. We’ve created this guide to shed light on the causes, symptoms, and physiotherapy treatments for diastasis recti. Our goal is to offer you a thorough understanding of this condition, helping you to sustain a healthy, active life.

What Is Abdominal Separation (Diastasis Recti)?

Diastasis recti is a condition where there is a separation of abdominal muscles, specifically the rectus abdominis. This condition is characterised by a gap between these muscles, which usually hold together the front of the abdomen.

It’s important to note that diastasis recti is not a tear but rather a stretching of the linea alba, the connective tissue that joins these muscles at the midline of the abdomen.

The Anatomy Involved

The rectus abdominis muscles, often referred to as the ‘six-pack’ muscles, are a pair of long, flat muscles that run vertically down each side of the anterior wall of the human abdomen.

On the other hand, the linea alba is the fibrous structure that runs down the middle of the abdomen, connecting these muscles. When the linea alba is stretched due to various factors such as pregnancy or excessive abdominal pressure, it causes the rectus abdominis muscles to separate, leading to diastasis recti.

Statistics and Demographics

Diastasis recti is most prevalent among pregnant women and postpartum mothers, though it can also affect men, women who have never been pregnant, and infants. Studies suggest that up to 60% of women may experience some degree of separation of abdominal muscles during or following pregnancy.

However, the condition is not limited to this demographic. Individuals who are overweight, have had abdominal surgery, or engage in activities that overly strain the abdominal area are also at risk. 

Causes of Diastasis Recti

Understanding the various factors that can lead to diastasis recti is crucial in both prevention and treatment. While there are several causes, some are more common than others.

1. Pregnancy

Pregnancy is the most frequent cause of diastasis recti. As the uterus expands to accommodate the growing baby, it places pressure on the abdominal muscles, particularly in the third trimester. This pressure can cause the muscles to stretch and separate.

This is why abdominal separation after birth is a common concern among new mothers. It’s important for pregnant women and those planning pregnancy to be aware of this risk and engage in appropriate exercises to strengthen the abdominal area.

2. Weight Gain and Obesity

Significant weight gain and obesity can also lead to diastasis recti. Excess fat in the abdomen puts additional pressure on the abdominal wall, causing the muscles to stretch and potentially separate. This is similar to the pressure experienced during pregnancy but can occur in any individual who carries extra weight in their abdominal area.

3. Excessive Abdominal Exercises

Contrary to popular belief, not all abdominal exercises are beneficial. Certain exercises, especially those that put excessive strain on the abdomen, like sit-ups or crunches, can contribute to the development of diastasis recti.

It’s crucial to understand the right kind of exercises to perform, especially if one is already at risk for or has diastasis recti.

4. Other Contributing Factors

Other factors can contribute to the development of diastasis recti, such as abdominal surgery, repeated heavy lifting, certain medical conditions, and age. 

Abdominal surgery, for example, can weaken the abdominal muscles and the linea alba, increasing the risk of muscle separation. Additionally, natural changes in muscle strength and elasticity as one ages can also play a role.

Abdominal Separation Symptoms and Identification

Recognising the symptoms of diastasis recti is the first step towards effective management and treatment. While symptoms can vary, there are some common indicators to be aware of.

How Do You Know if You Have Abdominal Separation

One of the most visible signs of diastasis recti is a bulging or protruding belly, often described as a ‘pooch’. This bulge is more noticeable when the abdominal muscles are strained, such as during coughing or sitting up.

Other symptoms include lower back pain, poor posture, constipation, and bloating. Postpartum abdominal separation is particularly noticeable due to the recent changes in the body’s structure and the extra strain it has undergone.

Stomach muscles separation can also lead to a feeling of general weakness in the core area, impacting balance and stability.

How to Self-Check for Diastasis Recti

Self-checking for diastasis recti involves a simple manual examination. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place one hand behind your head and lift your head and shoulders off the floor, engaging your abdominal muscles.

With your other hand, gently press along the midline of your abdomen, above and below the belly button. Feel for any gap or softness that could indicate a separation of the rectus abdominis muscles. It’s important to note the width and depth of any gap you find.

When to Seek Professional Diagnosis

If you suspect you have diastasis recti, especially if you’ve recently experienced postpartum abdominal separation, it’s advisable to seek a professional diagnosis. A healthcare professional, such as a physiotherapist or doctor, can provide a more accurate assessment and recommend an appropriate course of action.

Early diagnosis is key to effective treatment and preventing further complications.

Impact on Health and Daily Life

The consequences of diastasis recti extend beyond the physical appearance of the abdomen. This condition can have significant impacts on both physical health and daily life, as well as psychological well-being.

Physical Implications

Diastasis recti can lead to a variety of physical issues. A common symptom is pain, particularly in the lower back, due to the weakening of the core muscles which support the spine.

Mobility issues can also arise as the stability and strength of the core are compromised. This can affect the ability to perform everyday tasks and engage in physical activities.

Furthermore, a weakened pelvic floor associated with diastasis recti can lead to urinary incontinence, which is a major concern, especially for postpartum women.

Psychological Impact

The psychological impact of diastasis recti should not be underestimated. Issues with body image are common, particularly in the context of postpartum abdominal changes.

Many individuals may feel self-conscious or dissatisfied with their appearance due to the protrusion of the belly. This can lead to mental health considerations such as anxiety or depression, particularly if the condition is not adequately addressed or understood.

Impact on Daily Activities and Quality of Life

Diastasis recti can significantly affect one’s quality of life. The physical discomfort and mobility issues can make it challenging to carry out daily activities, from household chores to exercising.

This reduction in activity levels can further impact physical health, creating a cycle of discomfort and inactivity. Additionally, the condition can affect social interactions and participation in leisure activities, impacting overall well-being and life satisfaction.

Physiotherapy Treatment Options

Physiotherapy plays a crucial role in the treatment and management of diastasis recti. A comprehensive approach tailored to individual needs can significantly improve the condition and enhance quality of life.

Here are various physiotherapy treatment options, including services offered by Movement Laboratory.

Initial Assessment by a Physiotherapist

The first step in treating diastasis recti is an initial assessment by a qualified physiotherapist. At Movement Laboratory, the assessment includes a detailed examination of the abdominal muscles, posture, and overall physical health.

This helps in identifying the severity of the muscle separation and any related issues. A thorough assessment is essential for creating an effective treatment plan.

Exercise Therapy

Exercise therapy is a cornerstone of diastasis recti treatment. Specific exercises are designed to strengthen the abdominal muscles, improve core stability, and reduce the gap in the abdominal wall.

Movement Laboratory provides expert guidance on exercises that are safe and effective, ensuring they are suited to your level of recovery and fitness. These exercises often include pelvic floor strengthening, deep abdominal muscle training, and functional movements that integrate the whole body.

Other Treatment Modalities

In addition to exercise therapy, other treatment modalities can be beneficial. These may include massage therapy to ease muscle tension, the use of supportive belts or garments to provide abdominal support, and techniques to improve posture and body mechanics.

At Movement Laboratory, these additional treatments are integrated into your rehabilitation plan as needed, complementing the exercise regimen.

Customised Treatment Plans

Every individual’s experience with diastasis recti is unique, which is why customised treatment plans are vital. Movement Laboratory excels in creating personalised rehabilitation programs that cater to individual needs, lifestyle, and recovery goals. 

This personalised approach ensures that each client receives the most effective treatment, with regular assessments to track progress and make adjustments as necessary.

Preventive Measures and Lifestyle Changes

Preventing diastasis recti, especially for those at higher risk, is possible with the right lifestyle changes and preventive measures. These adjustments focus on strengthening core muscles, adopting a supportive diet, and making beneficial lifestyle modifications.

Preventive Exercises

Strengthening the core muscles is essential in preventing diastasis recti. Exercises that focus on the deep core muscles, like the transversus abdominis, and the pelvic floor can be particularly effective.

These exercises should aim at enhancing core stability without placing excessive strain on the abdominal wall. It’s important to perform these exercises correctly, and if unsure, seeking advice from a physiotherapist or a fitness professional is advisable.

Nutritional Considerations

Nutrition plays a significant role in muscle repair and strengthening. A diet rich in proteins, vitamins, and minerals supports the healing of tissues and the strengthening of muscles.

Including foods high in collagen, such as bone broth or citrus fruits, can also aid in the recovery of connective tissues. Hydration is equally important, as it supports overall bodily functions and tissue health.

Lifestyle Modifications

Making lifestyle modifications can also help in preventing diastasis recti. This includes adopting correct postures when sitting, standing, and lifting objects. 

Avoiding activities that strain the abdominal wall, like heavy lifting or intense core workouts, is also advisable, especially for pregnant women or those who have recently given birth. Additionally, being mindful of daily activities that involve the core can help maintain muscle integrity and prevent separation.

Long-term Management and Recovery

Effectively managing diastasis recti involves understanding the recovery process and adopting long-term strategies for health and wellness. Setting realistic expectations and committing to ongoing care are key components of successful management.

Managing Expectations: Timeline for Recovery

It’s important to manage expectations regarding the timeline for recovery from diastasis recti. The duration of recovery can vary greatly depending on the severity of the condition, the individual’s overall health, and their commitment to treatment and exercises.

Generally, noticeable improvements can be seen within a few weeks of consistent treatment, but complete recovery may take several months or even longer. Patience and persistence are crucial during this period.

Long-term Exercise Strategies

Long-term management of diastasis recti often involves incorporating specific exercises into one’s regular fitness routine. These exercises should focus on gradually strengthening the core and improving overall body alignment.

It’s advisable to continue exercises that promote pelvic floor health and core stability even after symptoms have improved. This not only aids in full recovery but also helps in preventing recurrence.

Regular Follow-ups and Assessment

Regular follow-ups with a healthcare provider or a physiotherapist are essential for monitoring progress and ensuring the effectiveness of the treatment plan.

These assessments can help in identifying any adjustments needed in the exercise regimen or overall treatment strategy. They also provide an opportunity for individuals to discuss any concerns or difficulties they are facing in their recovery journey.

FAQs

Can diastasis recti occur in men?

Yes, diastasis recti can occur in men. Factors like significant weight gain, especially around the abdomen, or performing incorrect or excessive abdominal exercises, can lead to diastasis recti in men.

Is diastasis recti only a concern post-pregnancy?

While diastasis recti is commonly associated with post-pregnancy, it can affect anyone, including men, women who haven’t been pregnant, and even newborn babies.

Are there any specific diets to help heal diastasis recti?

There isn’t a specific diet for diastasis recti, but a balanced diet rich in proteins, collagen, and vitamins can support muscle repair and overall tissue health.

Can diastasis recti affect future pregnancies?

Diastasis recti can affect future pregnancies. It’s advisable to strengthen the core muscles before conceiving again to reduce risks and complications.

How long should I wait after childbirth to start physiotherapy for diastasis recti?

It’s generally safe to start gentle exercises a few weeks after childbirth, but always consult your healthcare provider or a physiotherapist for personalised advice.

Can diastasis recti be completely healed?

Many individuals achieve significant improvement or complete healing with appropriate treatment, although the outcome can vary based on individual circumstances.

Is it safe to do abdominal exercises if I have diastasis recti?

Certain abdominal exercises are safe and beneficial, but it’s crucial to avoid exercises that can exacerbate the condition. Consulting with a physiotherapist for a suitable exercise regimen is recommended.

Navigating Your Path to Recovery

Diastasis recti is a condition that requires attention and care. We have explored its causes, symptoms, impact on health and daily life, along with effective physiotherapy treatments and preventive measures. Remember, diastasis recti not only affects physical appearance but can also lead to significant health issues if left unaddressed.

If you suspect you might have diastasis recti, or if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned, it’s crucial to seek professional advice. If you’re in Sydney, Movement Laboratory offers expert guidance and personalised treatment plans to help you manage and recover from this condition. A proactive approach, guided by professionals, can make a significant difference in your recovery journey.

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02:33 09 Sep 23
Anastasia is the most wonderful physiotherapist who helped us recover and improve our mobility and strength in record time. Highly recommend!
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I saw the lovely Shannon for my first consult today. She was extremely professional, knowledgeable and patient. The lovely reception staff were also amazing! Thank you team!!
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This place was amazing I was so happy about how I was treated and looked after . I liked how everything was explained to me and it made sense . I was grateful when I told my symptoms to the lovely lady she knew what I was talking about and ways we could improve things and that I wasn’t alone. Also I felt that the environment was pleasant calm and relaxing which is what I needed. I have already taken a few work cards to pass out to some ladies I know . Thank you 😊 Looking forward to moving forward
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