What is a Diastasis?
The word diastasis means ‘to separate’ and when people refer to Diastasis Recti it refers to ‘the separation of the Rectus Abdominis muscles’. A lot of times this condition is associated with women who are currently pregnant or are postpartum, however men and non-pregnant women can experience diastasis recti. Before we get totally freaked out, because having a separation in your abdominals sounds pretty bad, let’s explore what this exactly means:
The Rectus Abdominis and the Linea Alba:
The rectus abdominis are two parallel abdominal muscles that run vertically down the front of our body, (often referred to as ‘6-pack’ muscles). These two identical muscles attach from the ribs (5-7) and the xiphoid process (the lowest part/pointy end of the sternum) to the pubis (pubic bone). Between the two muscles, attaching them together and also running vertically down the center of our body, is the linea alba, a fibrous structure that is mostly made up of collagen and connective tissue.
What happens with diastasis recti?
The term diastasis recti is a little confusing because since the linea alba is positioned in between the two parallel muscles a separation between the two rectus abdominals is going to exist. However, when the size of the abdomen increases, say during pregnancy, the linea alba stretches in order to create the space that is needed. This stretching, which also results in the linea alba becoming thinner, widens the existing gap between the rectus abdominal muscles.
The illustration below shows common areas where diastasis recti occurs. I use this illustration when I work with postpartum women, however the diagram can also be applied to men and non-pregnant women.
Remember, the linea alba is connective tissue so it is supposed to stretch, and because it has a certain amount of elasticity, when the size of the abdomen decreases (ie returns back to the person’s original size) the linea alba should return back to its normal width, and consequently the gap between the rectus abdominal muscles returns back to its original width. (For a lot of postpartum women, the gap between their rectus abdominals will return back to what is considered their normal width between 6-8 months following pregnancy).
So what’s the big deal about having ‘diastasis recti’?
Well, not only is a muscle, such as the rectus abdominis, stronger than connective tissue, such as the linea alba, but in the process of stretching, the linea alba thins thus becoming less dense and this can cause it to lose its ability to retain tension. So even though the linea alba is doing what it is designed to do, when it is stretched it isn’t necessarily functioning optimally and can be easily damaged when it is in this state.
Consider your rectus abdominals as the fabric of pants, if pressure increases the seams of those pants are supposed to allow a little bit of give which is what the linea alba does. However, if the inner pressure is too great, the seams could be stretched beyond their elastic capabilities and A) may not return back to their normal shape and always be a little weak, or B) the seams could tear, or even worse burst (called a hernia when discussing the body), in one or multiple areas that were weak.
Every time you lay down from sitting, or do a plank, you are applying a lot of pressure to your front abdominals and to the linea alba. Therefore, you want this system to be working properly.
So when we are examining a diastasis of the rectus abdominal muscles, we are also looking at how well the linea alba is functioning. Which is what we will be checking in part two.