Diastasis Rectus Abdominus, or DRA for those of us short on time(!), is an abnormal separation of the left and right rectus abdominus muscles and can happen in babies, athletes, men and women! Having a history of being pregnant (no matter the method of delivery) can put you at increased risk for this condition for several reasons.
The abdominal region is the only area where you’ll find connective tissue running directly down the center of a muscle group. This is not a flaw in the way we were designed, ladies, but rather a miracle of nature designed to allow our bodies to accommodate a growing baby and uterus. That being said the extra force placed on this vulnerable tissue by the uterus may increase our chances of developing a DRA.
You have three layers of abdominal muscles. The most superficial muscles are your rectus abdominus or “6-pack” muscles as they are affectionately coined. Next come internal and external obliques. All three of these are registered as a very loud voice in your brain, and traditional abdominal exercises often take an already “loud” muscle and make it a scream! Meanwhile, your deepest abdominal muscle, your transversus abdominus, is registered as a whisper in your brain, and the extra stretch of pregnancy can turn it into a muted voice altogether. The transversus abdominus is responsible for compressing your viscera and stabilizing your spine, so without it working properly it’s no wonder you may feel disconnected and be left with back pain. The key here is balance!
In pregnancy, you have increased levels of progesterone and relaxin working to soften and relax all the connective tissue and smooth muscles in the body, not just those around your pelvis. This means that the connective tissue between the rectus abdominus muscles (the linea alba mentioned above) will be affected by these circulating hormones. It should also be noted that the stress hormone cortisol, when present in abundance, can also weaken connective tissue and I’m not sure I can find a pregnant or recently postpartum woman on this planet who isn’t experiencing an elevation in her stress levels.
Many women are extra motivated to stay fit during their pregnancy and may inadvertently choose an exercise program that is not designed by a skilled Prenatal Specialist who takes the above risks into consideration. Women should avoid any movements where she cannot properly manage the pressure in her midsection (most often exercises like crunches, cross overs, weighted twisting, and double leg lowering should be avoided). Even excessive time in the all 4’s position may bring more harm than good to a vulnerable midsection. Notice I included movement here too, because the way a pregnant woman positions her body in sitting, standing, lying down, and with her activities of daily living, may be setting her up for an abdominal separation.
If a woman is experiencing a longer second stage of labor, especially if she is pushing in the dorsal lithotomy position (on her back with knees up), it is essential that she knows how to activate her deeper abdominals. Spending loads of time here can create a separation or worsen one that was already present prior to labor.
In those tender first few months after giving birth, your body is looking for guidance from you as to where all its parts belong. Jack-knifing out of bed 10 times a night to check on a noisy newborn or nursing in a half-collapsed position of exhaustion will be giving your fascial structures the wrong message about where they should be. Likewise, asking your postpartum body to tote a stroller, car seat, diaper bag, and baby all at once or joining an intense Boot Camp Class is setting the stage to allow excessive intra-abdominal pressure to make a grand escape through the path of least resistance (often by bulging out through your midsection or maybe down below through the pelvic floor in the form of urinary incontinence or pelvic organ prolapse).
Let me reiterate that our bodies were designed to birth a baby, but there are choices we can make along that will allow us a better chance of raising that baby with confidence and without a bulging belly or leaky pelvic floor.