Diastasis recti is a condition describing the abnormal separation of the rectus muscles of the abdominal wall. It is common in women who have given birth. The separation often occurs in pregnancy when the tissue between the rectus muscle stretches, causing a bulge from the abdominal contents leading to abdominal coning. About a third of women still have abdominal doming one year after birth. However, we also see diastasis recti in men and athletes. So what is diastasis recti, and is surgery the only answer?

illustration of diastasis recti

Symptoms of diastasis recti in men and women

Generally, you see a visible bulge or lump between the rectus muscles. We often call this appearance abdominal coning or doming. Usually, the coning is worse when standing and lessens when lying flat.

As a result of the abdominal doming, men and women have weaker abdominal muscles, potentially leading to the following problems:

  • difficultly lifting objects
  • low back pain
  • abdominal discomfort
  • pelvic pain and potential for pelvic prolapse
  • urinary incontinence

What causes diastasis recti in men and women? 

Overall, elevated abdominal pressure is the overriding cause.

In pregnant women, the baby’s growth in the womb stretches the abdominal walls. In addition, high levels of hormones such as oestrogen and relaxin contribute to stretching. As a result, abdominal coning increases with larger babies, twins, and older women. Overall, younger women are less likely to have diastasis recti. Also, ladies who had a cesarian section are more likely to develop diastasis recti.

However, we also see diastasis recti in men and athletes. Non-pregnant causes include lifting heavy weights, sudden weight gain, and connective tissue disorders (e.g., genetic conditions) causing laxity.

risks for diastasis recti

Diagnosis of diastasis recti in men and women 

Firstly, your doctor should take a history of past tummy surgery, childbirth problems (forceps use, size of baby), and any bowel or bladder problem symptoms.

Generally, abdominal doming is visible. However, a physical examination is essential to confirm the diagnosis. Separation can occur above or below the navel.

Usually, investigations are helpful. Traditionally, a CT scan has been used to confirm and grade the separation of the rectus muscles. More recently, ultrasound gives good information about the extent of the break without the radiation or costs. Measurement of separation in the tummy is performed at 5 points above and below the belly button. Generally, a detachment of greater than 3 cm is abnormal. However, greater than 5 cm separation is severe. Also, imaging can confirm if there is an actual hole in the wall, often called a hernia. Finally, scanning will also show whether the tummy muscles are contracting correctly, which might tell us whether exercises will help.

ultrasound to confirm diastasis recti

Treatment options 

Generally, we treat smaller-sized diastasis less than 5mm with rehab. Conversely, a separation greater than 5cm usually requires surgery.

Usually, rehab involves exercises to reduce the separation between the muscles. Also, education about what exercises to avoid is essential. Overall, healing takes about four weeks to start working and up to 12 weeks for full effect.

Exercises to avoid 

In general, you should avoid excessive abdominal exercises. These include sit-ups, abdominal twists, backward bends, and specific Yoga poses that excessively stretch the abdominals. Instead, we recommend building up the strength of their inner muscles before moving to more advanced tummy exercises.

Best exercises for abdominal coning in men and women 

Which exercises are best for diastasis recti? Generally, those exercises reduce the separation by tensing the deep abdominal muscles with a neutral spine and your back on the floor. You should hold the exercises for longer and with greater loads. Other workouts to try include planks, push-ups, and pelvic floor exercises. Some therapists use braces and neuromuscular electrical stimulation. Research shows that muscle stimulators with exercises are better than exercises alone. 

Do you need surgery for abdominal doming? 

Generally, surgery is recommended if the gap between the muscles is greater than 5cm or rehab has failed to improve the separation. The procedure can be performed open or keyhole. Usually, stitches are used to pull the muscles back together. If you have a hernia, the surgeon will repair this as well.

Often, you can return to work in 2-4 weeks and avoid heavy lifting for at least four weeks.

Other frequently asked questions on diastasis recti?  

What are the other causes of lumps in the abdomen? 

Inter-parietal hernias are tears at the linea semilunaris, causing a hernia-like pinpoint lump. This hernia is not a true hernia but a partial tear of the fascia of the abdominal muscles.

Ventral hernias are small hernias usually occurring in the region of diastasis recti leading to small lumps.

An umbilical hernia usually occurs at the fascia level containing the umbilicus.

Can nerves of the abdominal wall cause pain? 

Nerves passing through the rectus abdominous come from the thoracic spinal pain. These nerves pass through the rectus abdominus muscle and can get trapped in the muscle. Trapping causes pain, also known as anterior cutaneous nerve entrapment.

Final word from Sportdoctorlondon about diastasis recti in men and women 

Diastasis recti is common in women who give birth. But we also see diastasis recti in men and athletes. Surgery is not the whole answer. Rehab should be tried first if the gap between the rectus muscles is less than 5cm.

Dr. Masci is a specialist sport doctor in London. 

He specialises in muscle, tendon and joint injuries.

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