Diastasis recti: the post pregnancy belly problem you’ve probably never heard of

Up to 60% of pregnant women are affected by diastasis recti. Stock photo. [Photo: Getty]
Up to 60% of pregnant women are affected by diastasis recti. Stock photo. [Photo: Getty]

Pregnancy and childbirth changes women’s bodies. FACT.

But while it’s totally normal for your post-baby belly to be a little wobblier than usual, if you continue to have a baby bump even though your little one is now crawling or even walking, you may be suffering from a little known condition called diastasis recti.

And you’ve probably never even heard of it.

That’s because despite it affecting around 60% of postpartum women, there’s surprisingly little research on diastasis recti.

It’s the medical term for abdominal muscles become separated and is defined as having a gap of roughly 2.7cm between the rectus abdominis muscles.

In less scientific terms, it means your belly sticks out because the space between your right and left abdominal muscles, which normally holds your tummy in its place, has widened.

It can happen to people who are overweight or those who don’t exercise in the right way, but women who give birth are often most affected.

“The rectus muscles are essentially the ‘six pack’ that you see on well-toned body builders and gym fans,” Mr Ewen Griffiths, consultant gastro surgeon at BMI The Edgbaston Hospital in Birmingham.

During pregnancy these abdominal wall muscles get stretched due to the physical growth and pressure of the baby inside the pelvis.

“The hormones of pregnancy allow for this relaxation and stretching of the abdominal wall muscles,” Griffiths continues. “This occurs more with twins or heavier babies and particularly with diabetic mums.”

Mr Griffiths says the condition is very common in pregnancy with up to 60% of women being affected.

Pelvic floor exercises can help diastasis recti [Photo: Getty]
Pelvic floor exercises can help diastasis recti [Photo: Getty]

So how can you tell if you have diastasis recti?

“You now this is happening to you when you can see an upper abdominal bulge when you lift things or if you sit up,” Mr Griffiths explains. “This should not be painful, and if it is then it’s probably due to a hernia rather than to diastasis of the rectus muscle.”

The NHS has devised a simple test to check the size of your separation after birth:

  • Lie on your back with your legs bent and your feet flat on the floor.

  • Raise your shoulders off the floor slightly and look down at your tummy. Using the tips of your fingers, feel between the edges of the muscles, above and below your belly button. See how many fingers you can fit into the gap between your muscles.

  • Do this regularly to check that the gap is gradually decreasing.

What should you do if you think you’ve got it?

If you think you might be suffering it is probably worth talking to your health visitor or GP. Your GP can refer you to a physiotherapist, who will give you some specific exercises to do.

Mr Griffiths says that core strengthening exercises and exercises to physically improve the muscles on either side can help.

“It gets better after birth, or at least becomes less noticeable, but in some mums it could take several months or years after delivery,” he warns.

The severity of the condition depends on how large or wide the gap is. The wider the gap, the more severe the condition. In more serious cases, the belly, bowels, and organs can hang out more, increasing symptoms.

“In extreme cases you can get surgery to fix it, but this would be one for my cosmetic surgery colleagues and it’s not available on the NHS,” advises Mr Griffiths.

But the NHS advises that regular pelvic floor and deep stomach muscle exercises can help to reduce the size of the separation between your stomach muscles.

“It’s also important to stand up tall and be aware of your posture now you’re no longer pregnant,” the site continues.

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