How to Know if Your Abdominal Muscles Were Torn During Pregnancy
Do you still look pregnant months after delivery? Are you struggling with weak ab muscles, back pain and an ever-growing belly bulge? If so, a postpartum abdominal condition called diastasis recti (torn or split abdominal muscles) could be to blame. This article explains diastasis recti in detail and gives you all the information you need to tell if your abdominal muscles were torn during pregnancy.
Have my abs torn during pregnancy?
During your pregnancy, your body may have surprised you in a number of ways. Strange food cravings, a sore back and fatigue are all part of the journey. Of course, that’s just the start of it. Your ever-growing belly is one of the most significant and shocking changes your body goes through to accommodate your growing baby. And while watching your belly grow may have been exciting at the start, the goal of returning to your pre-baby body can be extremely motivating.
You may find that you’re exercising more, eating better and doing all that you can to ‘bounce back’ to the shape you once were. However, you might soon come to realise that after months of hard work, your figure has barely changed. You’re not alone. Many women become discouraged when they learn that diet and exercise alone aren’t helping to restore their pre-baby figure, and dismay often follows when they realise their ab muscles might separate as a result.
Abdominal muscles can often tear or split during pregnancy and childbirth in a condition called diastasis recti. This condition is unfamiliar to many mums, with most assuming it’s their fault they can’t return to their pre-baby belly. In fact, diastasis recti can make it near impossible to regain your ‘normal’ belly shape and size without the help of surgery.
It’s more common than you think
Diastasis recti is a very common condition during and following pregnancy. In fact, 60 – 70 per cent of women who’ve been pregnant experience torn abdominal muscles to some degree. Whilst pregnant, your connective tissue, the linea alba, thins out due to changing hormone levels while your uterus expands to accommodate your growing baby.
After delivery, your hormones return to their pre-pregnancy levels which should improve the thinning of your linea alba. However, a lot of the time, these tissues have stretched so much that they lose their elasticity. With lost elasticity, these tissues lose their ability to bounce back to their original, pre-baby position. Abdominal separation during pregnancy affects 2 in 3 mothers, and most aren’t aware they have it, or how to treat it.
What does it mean to have torn abdominal muscles or diastasis recti?
Abdominal muscle separation is caused by internal abdominal pressure. As your baby grows during pregnancy, the uterus expands and pushes against the abdominal wall. While this occurs, your pregnancy hormones allow the connective tissues to soften and relax.
As your baby grows bigger and the pressure on your abdominal wall increases, the sides of your rectus abdominis or ‘six-pack’ muscles begin to widen. This widening occurs in the connective tissue between your ab muscles, the linea alba, and causes a gap or separation to occur.
This is most common in the third trimester of your pregnancy but can also occur after childbirth when there’s no baby to support the weakened abdominal muscles.
Symptoms may be present during or after pregnancy, and include:
- Back pain – mainly in the lower back
- Pelvic pain
- Muscle weakness
- Urinary leaking
After pregnancy, a key giveaway that you have diastasis recti is that your belly protrudes and still appears pregnant, despite your increasing efforts with diet and exercise. If you find yourself struggling to remove your bulging belly after pregnancy, surgery may be a good option. This condition is something that mums either accept or repair with Tummy Tuck surgery. Tummy tuck or Abdominoplasty surgery can be life-changing for those concerned about their postpartum body as it helps to firm and tighten the belly similar to how it once was.
Who is at risk of getting diastasis recti?
Separation of the abdominal muscles is common in pregnancy however, some are more prone to the condition. Typically, women who have had more than one baby and women who have had a direct relative experience diastasis recti are more likely to have it themselves.
Women who have the highest chance of this include those who:
- have had multiple pregnancies
- have had a previous pregnancy which caused muscle separation
- become pregnant soon after a previous pregnancy
- have poor abdominal muscle tone
- are overweight or obese
- have a petite frame
- have a heavy birth-weight baby or multiple babies
- have poor posture
How can I tell if my abdominal muscles were torn during pregnancy?
You can check yourself whether you have a diastasis recti muscle separation or you can ask your GP or midwife for a medical assessment. Before beginning self-assessment, there are some recommendations to ensure your body has recovered fully from the pregnancy.
It’s important to allow an adequate period of time for your body to adjust. This can take between several months and two years. It’s also important that you’re making an effort with diet and exercise to determine whether or not your body will change naturally.
Separation is measured by the number of fingers that fit in between the inner sides of the rectus abdominis muscle. Two or more finger widths is considered diastasis recti. Typically there are three key signs to identify if your abs were damaged, torn or separated throughout your pregnancy. These include:
- There is a visible gap (more than 2 finger-widths) in the middle of your abdomen.
- This gap does not get smaller as you contract your ab muscles.
- There is a visible mound that sticks out along the length of your midline.
If you’ve spent more than six months eating healthy and exercising but you’re experiencing the above symptoms, you may consider trying the below self-assessment technique.
Self-assessment technique for diastasis recti
Follow the below steps to check if your abdominal muscles have split:
- Lay on your back with your knees bent at a 45-degree angle. Tuck your pelvis and relax your spine. Take some deep breaths.
- Contract your pelvic floor muscles, lift your head and tuck your chin toward your chest.
- Walk your fingers down from your rib cage towards your belly button. If there is a division where your muscles separate, you should be able to feel it.
- If you feel a gap, press down. Diastasis recti will feel soft and spongy, not tight and strong.
Can I fix separated abdominal muscles with exercise?
If you’ve determined that your muscles have divided, you may be looking for a way to fix it. There are exercises you can perform to improve the separation, but it is usually not repairable without the help of surgery.
Pilates, yoga, cardio and strength training may help improve your abdominal muscle strength, but it’s recommended that you discuss this with your physio or fitness coach first. Before attempting to perform difficult core exercises, it’s important to be aware of the risks. Planks and crunches, if attempted too early, may actually make your bulge appear worse. Instead, Pilates exercises are a great way to begin if your condition is mild and not severe. These include:
- cat cows
- pelvic tilts
- toe taps and,
- leg extensions
Any exercises that you do, you must make sure that your navel is contracted (pulled in) rather than expanded (pushed out). This is really important to ensure that you aren’t worsening your condition.
It’s important to note that although these core exercises may help to strengthen your ab muscles, they will not repair and rejoin torn abdominal muscles on their own. If you struggle to perform these core exercises due to back pain or muscle weakness, it’s recommended that you stop and book a consultation with a healthcare professional. Whether it’s your GP, Gynaecologist, Physiotherapist or Plastic Surgeon, they will be able to determine whether you have suffered notable muscle damage during pregnancy. They will also advise you on how to prevent your muscle separation from worsening, giving you the best chance of recovery without surgery.
Tummy Tuck Surgery to Repair Separated Abdominal Muscles
If you’ve waited months or years for your tummy to regain its shape and strength, and your diastasis recti has not recovered, surgery may be the next best step.
Abdominoplasty surgery, performed by a specialist plastic surgeon, has the power to restore separated muscles and also alleviate any hygiene issues caused by loose excess skin. Diastasis recti is also an eligibility criterion to have a partly Medicare-funded tummy tuck surgery. The cosmetic goal of this surgery is to create a firmer and smoother profile of the tummy area.
There are two ways this procedure can be performed. In a full tummy tuck procedure, your surgeon will rejoin and tighten your abdominal muscles. He will also remove additional skin folds and excess fat from your belly. This achieves both the medical goal of allowing your abdominal muscles to regain their original function and can improve the aesthetics of your postpartum body.
Alternatively, you may decide to undergo surgery solely to improve your diastasis recti. In this procedure, only your abdominal muscles will be tightened.
If you do decide to undergo surgery for your diastasis recti, it’s important that you wait at least a year since your baby was born. This gives your body sufficient time to heal and your muscles to return to their original place. This also allows enough time for your exercise, diet and physical therapy to work and for you to notice results.
It’s also important to consider the effect that breast-feeding may have on your abdomen. Hormone levels when breastfeeding may interfere with your abdominal muscles and prevent them from regaining their shape. Because of this, you should wait a few months after your baby is done breastfeeding.
Before committing to surgery, you must be aware of all the risks pertaining to your surgery. All surgery carries risks, whether it be undesirable scarring or poor recovery. You can read more about this on our general risks of surgery page.
Finally, you must have realistic expectations about what abdominoplasty surgery can achieve. It is not a weight loss surgery and may not help you to remove excess fat. It will, however, remove any excess stretched skin and your ‘mummy tummy.’ If your main goal is to remove excess fat alongside excess skin and your bulging diastasis recti belly, your surgeon may offer to combine your procedure with liposuction. This is something that is determined in your initial consultation with Dr Doyle.
Steps to take if you think your muscles split during pregnancy
- seek advice from a physiotherapist or exercise professional
- commit to exercise and healthy eating for 6+ months
- self assess for diastasis recti
- undergo a medical assessment to determine if you have diastasis recti
If exercise and diet aren’t helping you to regain your pre-pregnancy body and you’ve waited at least a year, you may then consider Abdominoplasty surgery. Read more about the surgery here or get in touch to discuss the possibility of a Tummy Tuck surgery with Specialist Plastic Surgeon, Dr Mark Doyle in Queensland, Australia.
- Abdominal Separation (Diastasis Recti) – Pregnancy Birth Baby
- 9 Diastasis Recti Exercises for Postpartum Ab Separation – What to Expect