Ab separation — also known as diastasis recti, diastasis rectus abdominis, or DRA — happens when the connective tissue between your left and right rectus abdominis or “six-pack” muscles become overstretched (picture a piece of taffy being pulled apart). As a result, you may see or feel a gap down the midline of your belly. In addition to a gap, you might notice a "doming" or puckering down the center of your belly with activities like sitting up, crunching, or leaning back, for example when you wash your hair in the shower.
The latest research suggests that up to 100% of pregnant individuals have DRA in the third trimester, which makes sense — that connective tissue between your rectus abdominis, called the linea alba (#2 in the diagram below), has to stretch to make room for your growing baby. For many new moms, DRA naturally resolves in the months following delivery, but 1 in 3 women still have DRA 1 year postpartum.
When the linea alba isn't holding your rectus abdominis muscles together, your abs can't function properly or fully support your back. Long-term effects can include back pain and poor posture, as well as pelvic floor issues, including bladder and bowel leaks.
Check Yourself for DRA
The best way to know for sure if you have DRA is to be evaluated by a physical therapist online or in person, but this self-check can help you decide if you should schedule a visit:
- Start by lying down on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Gently push two fingers into the middle of your abdominal wall at your belly button, with your fingers pointing toward your legs.
- With one hand under your head for support, perform a crunch by lifting your head just high enough to raise your shoulder blades off of the ground.
- Wiggle your fingers to feel for a space between your abdominals, then repeat a few inches above the belly button and a few inches below.
A normal result (no DRA) is less than two fingers of separation and firm, shallow space where your fingers can't sink in too deep. If you feel a separation greater than two finger-widths and feel a deep space that your fingers can sink into, you may have DRA.
If you're worried that your abs are separated, schedule a physical therapy visit, as soon as you can. A PT will assess you for DRA and, if you have it, use targeted exercises and movement education to restore tension in the LA and strengthen your body. That way you can get safely back to the activities you love and reduce risk of injury in the future.