2 weeks ago, we chatted about what exactly is a diastasis rectus abdominus (DRA) and how to check to see if you have one. Today, we’re going to talk about how pelvic floor physical therapists evaluate a person with DRA, and what can be done to improve this. If you are struggling with support at your belly, I also hope you will join us for our upcoming LIVE class focused on this exact topic! Sara Reardon and I invited Sarah Duvall, an incredible expert, to join us for a 90-minute class on Diastasis Recti Rehabilitation. We took a lot of time to plan out this content, and I have to tell you all– this class is going to rock! The LIVE event is coming up Sunday May 3rd at 3pm EST, and it will be available after as a recording. We have a lot of great bonuses also– including handouts on exercises to get started and a lot more! Registration for the LIVE class is limited, so don’t wait to sign-up!
As we discussed previously, DRA involves an increased gap between the two bellies of the rectus abdominis muscle and a loss of support at the abdomen. Often times, people experiencing this will feel like they don’t have as much control or stability at their belly, and they may feel a bulging at their belly (some will even feel like they look pregnant when they aren’t!) We also discussed how to check to see if you do have a DRA. Now, let’s talk about how we approach making this better.
Your first visit
When we first evaluate someone with a DRA, we always make sure we get a complete history of the problems and challenges they are experiencing. This includes discussing any pregnancies/births (if applicable), their pelvic health (yep– bladder, bowel and sexual function), musculoskeletal challenges, medical problems, and their fitness preferences and routines. Then, we discuss their diastasis and what is bothersome to them. Is it primarily the appearance or the knowledge that it is there? Are they also struggling with back pain or pelvic organ prolapse or other problems? Does their diastasis limit their ability to exercise or lift their children? Our goal here is to really have a complete picture on the challenges they are facing.
Next, we move into an examination. This can include many different parts. As a diastasis is a pressure system problem, we want to look at everything that could impact the system. This could include:
- Movement patterns
- Spinal mobility
- Preferred postures/positions
- Ribcage movement
- Breathing patterns
- Pelvic floor function (yep, sometimes people with DRA benefit significantly from a specific pelvic floor exam if they’re on board with it!)
- Scar tissue mobility
- Myofascial mobility at the abdomen and the back
- Abdominal, hip, and pelvic motor control/strength
Each of these components can actually influence how much pressure is at the linea alba (between the two bellies of the rectus abdominis) and the control at the abdomen. If someone has decreased movement around their spine and ribcage, this can impact the fascia around the abdomen and contribute to widening at their midline. If they have less optimal breathing patterns, this could be funneling pressure where we don’t want it to go, instead of spreading the pressure out across the trunk and sharing the load.
Once we do a comprehensive evaluation, we develop a treatment plan to address the problems we found. This typically includes:
- Improving global movement patterns
- Improving breathing patterns (both in static postures and during movements/activities)
- Restoring mobility and improving sensitivity at muscles and soft tissues (including scars)
- Optimizing the pressure system
- Retraining the abdominal wall
I want to talk a little bit more about how we can optimize the pressure system and retrain the abdominal wall.
Optimizing the pressure system
When improving DRA, it’s very important to keep the pressure system in mind. Pressure at the abdomen and pelvis depends on coordination of several muscles that work together in synergy. This includes the glottis, intercostal muscles, respiratory diaphragm, transverse abdominis, lumbar multifidis and the pelvic floor muscles. Mary Massery (who has contributed SO much to our understanding of these pieces) created an analogy of a soda pop can.
In this analogy, the glottal folds are at the top, the pelvic floor muscles at the bottom, and the respiratory diaphragm in the middle. The intercostals, lumbar multifidus, and transverse abdominis are around the can. So, basically, these structures together work together to keep pressure spread out, leading to a strong and functional core. In the soda pop can example, the thin aluminum is pressurized on all sides, leading to a strong can that is difficult to break (Of course, this changes if the can is open or has a hole in it!)
So, in the case of a diastasis rectus, the pressure system is often not working optimally. Basically, pressure in many cases is funneled toward the belly, instead of being spread to all the structures, and this can contribute to gapping, bulging and a loss of support.
So, from a treatment standpoint, our goal becomes to optimize this system. We get to play detective and find out which of these structures are working well, and which need some assistance to do their job optimally. Then, we retrain this system, focusing on the natural synergy that should be present. When this is done well, we help the body learn to spread the load, decrease the funneling of pressure to the belly (or elsewhere) and thus, we improve what the person is experiencing at their abdomen.
Retraining the abdominal wall
After we improve the pressure system, we need to retrain all of the muscles in the abdominal wall. This further helps to improve the pressure system, but it also can assist in stimulating the fascia in the abdomen. Often times, retraining the abdomen starts by building the pressure system base like we discussed up above. This base– the pelvic floor- diaphragm- transverse abdominis- lumbar multifidus- base– is the key to what else we need to do to improve function at the abdomen. The transverse abdominis is particularly important. This muscle helps to tension the linea alba, which improves force transfer through this structure.
Next, we use breathing and awareness of muscles to retrain these muscles in a variety of movements, postures, and exercises. This can start as a simple progression– learning to activate these muscles while breathing and lifting an arm, then lifting a leg– and progressing from there.
We also teach self-awareness of the abdomen. So, this helps you identify how you manage pressure in your abdomen, and this is very important in making sure you are challenging your system, while still being able to control pressure (and not allow the pressure to funnel in your belly and produce coning and doming). As we progress in exercises, we ultimately want to retrain this system within the rest of the muscles in the abdomen, and this is fun, because we can be very creative and often help people progress toward things they did not think would be possible for them. So, can someone struggling with a diastasis eventually do planks? sit-ups? Abdominal crunches? What about pilates? Yoga? Barre classes? Most of the time, we can work together to help you reach the goals you want to reach. I really believe there are not “bad” exercises, but the key thing is determining the readiness of the person to do the exercise well, and ensuring that they can modulate pressure while doing the movement.
So, if you’re struggling with your belly…
Know, that there is hope. There is so much we can do to help restore stability at the abdomen and improve the way you move and transfer force through your belly. Come and join our upcoming class (or get the on-demand recording if you’re reading this later!) If you’re struggling, there can really be so much value to being evaluated by a pelvic health provider in person. So reach out! And if you need help finding a pelvic PT, check out this prior blog post to help you!
As always, reach out if you have questions!