Why Do I Still Look Pregnant?!: Diastasis Recti, Part I

By Stephanie Stamas

Is it just me, or does it seem like everyone is having a baby this summer? My Facebook feed is filled with pregnant belly time lapses and newborn pictures. I’m at the age where a lot of my friends are starting families and knowing that I am a pelvic floor therapist, I have been getting a lot of phone calls. One of the top questions that I have been asked is – I’ve had my baby, so why do I still look pregnant?

Here is the scoop – When you are pregnant, your abdominal muscles expand in length by the addition of more muscle fibers (sarcomeres) to accommodate your growing belly. After birth, it typically takes 6-8 weeks for the muscles to re-organize and shrink in length to a size that best supports your abdominal contents. This is how the body is designed to adjust to the changing abdominal circumference. Some women, however, grow very quickly and the muscles are not able to expand quick enough. When this occurs, the linea alba (the vertical line of the much-desired six-pack) stretches and the abdominal muscles move away from the midline. This is a more common occurrence in women with more than one pregnancy, multiples (twins, triplets, etc) or a non-exercising lifestyle prior to pregnancy. The stretched linea alba does not typically return to its previous length in a 6-8 week time frame and can allow the abdominal contents (your organs) to bulge through the thin tendonous structure, leading to the look of being pregnant.

Having a diastasis recti may not only result in the mother continuing to look pregnant, but it can also lead to low back pain, pelvic pain, constipation and pelvic organ prolapse. I like to compare the core to a closed canister (you can think of a Coke can) – The diaphragm is on top, the pelvic floor muscles are the bottom and the abdominal musculature – specifically the transversus abdominus and multifidi – are the circumference of the can. These muscles create a tight-knit closed environment that allow for proper support of the viscera (organs), stabilization of the spine with functional activities, and normal function of the bowel, bladder and sexual systems. Having a diastasis recti is similar to having a split along the side of the coke can, and therefore can compromise all systems that rely on that closed environment.

Great, so I think I have a diastasis recti – now what do I do?
Most separations can return to normal with progressive exercises. First off – stop all crunches and abdominal exercises you are doing.  If you have a separation, doing crunches will actually contribute to the muscles being pulled away from the midline and worsen the diastasis. We need to promote approximation, not separation. Some women benefit from wearing an abdominal binder to counteract distraction forces across the linea alba with physical activity. This is helpful for active mothers who are required to use their abdominal muscles, specifically the rectus abdominus, throughout the day (lifting, carrying, etc). The abdominal binder often gives mothers immediate abdominal support, but should not take the place of strengthening. Below is a basic foundational exercise that will begin to allow the rectus abdominus muscle to return to midline.

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If the muscles are not coming together within 4-6 weeks of starting the exercises, see your local women’s health physical therapist (like us!). Sometimes abdominal scars, muscle tightness (especially internal & external oblique) and thoracolumbar fascia tightness can prevent the muscles coming together in the front because of adhesions elsewhere in the core. Also, if you are experiencing low back pain, pelvic pain or dysfunction with bowel, bladder or sexual function, then seeing a women’s health physical therapist is highly recommended.

Just found out you were pregnant or trying to get pregnant soon? Stay tuned for Part 2, where we will discuss preventative measures to prevent a diastasis recti!

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