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Diastasis Recti Abdominis: A Narrative Review

The following post comes to us in part from Ginger Garner, PT, ATC, PYT, who teaches three yoga courses for Herman & Wallace; Yoga for Pelvic Pain, Yoga as Medicine for Pregnancy, and Yoga as Medicine for Labor and Postpartum. Check out her poster at the Combined Sections Meeting this weekend in Anaheim!

Maternal health care in the United States is abysmal. Especially wretched is care and support of women post-partum. Our insurance system is partially to blame by dictating that women receive only one visit with the provider who participated in the delivery of their baby 6 weeks after the baby is born, no matter the method of delivery. This is often after most of the scary, unexpected side effects of delivery, like heavy bleeding, nipple pain, urinary incontinence, difficulty with bowel movements, scar pain and tremendous mood swings have begun to ease. Only the women who are the most persistent, or those who have chosen unique care models (like out of hospital births with midwives), seem to get real support post-partum, leaving marginalized and less self-driven women to fend for themselves.

What if research could show that immediately treating some of the side effects of birth, like diastasis recti abdominus, which occurs in 50-60% of post-partum women, could result in improved outcomes in the long run? What if someone could prove that retraining and strengthening the abdominal wall as part of a biopsychosocial model empowering women could change the costly effects of prolapse and urinary incontinence treatment later on in life? What if that research aimed to show that treating women in partnership will all care providers was the most effective? These are big questions, but through research beginning with Diastasis Recti Abdominis (DRA), some Women’s Health Physical Therapists trained in Medical Therapeutic Yoga are hoping to highlight some answers.

At CSM in San Diego next month, these researchers (listed below) are presenting a poster via the Section on Women’s Health showcasing their paper, Diastasis Recti Abdominis: A Narrative Review. They found that good, solid research focusing on the co-morbidities and treatment of DRA is really lacking. Most well-done studies focus on the reliability and validity of measurement techniques, showing that calipers and ultrasound are the most valid and reliable ways to measure the gap. There is not even agreement on what precise measurement technically constitutes a DRA, though most agree that normal inter-recti distance is 15-25mm supraumbilically among parous females with digital calipers. (Chiarello 2013).

Besides the obvious cosmetic and general strengthening concerns, why do we care about physical therapy care for a post-partum DRA? Spitznagle’s retrospective chart review of women presenting for gynecological care with a mean age of 52 found that 52% had DRA and 66% of them had a least one support-related pelvic floor muscle dysfunction. Those with DRA were more likely to have pelvic organ prolapse, urinary incontinence and fecal incontinence. Another study by Parker found a DRA prevalence of 74.4% among women with back or pelvic area pain who had delivered at least one child and sought PT. They found a significant difference in VAS pain levels in those with DRA and abdominal or pelvic pain compared to those without DRA. More well-done, prospective studies are really needed to correlate these sequalea in later life to DRA post-partum.

The topic of how to retrain the abdominal wall to restore optimal function and cosmetic appearance is hot in the blogosphere right now. Does it matter if the width of the diastasis recti is reduced? Or is it a matter of having tension in the linea alba as the clinician sinks his/her fingers toward the spine? Biomechanically we know that in order to improve stiffness in the trunk, we need synergistic and symmetrical firing of the diaphragm, transversus abdominis, multifidus and the pelvic floor with proper timing and contraction of the hip and external abdominal muscles. Benjamin completed a review of the research on the effects of exercise in the antenatal and postnatal periods and concluded that antenatal exercise may be protective against the formation of a DRA, but that the available studies are of such poor quality and varied in the way that abdominal/core strengthening was applied in the post-partum population, that it is impossible to tell how or why exercise may or may not help with DRA!

There is clearly a huge hole in the literature and as usual, new mothers are suffering. Women are spending money on programs they find on the internet that are not backed by solid research, because there is not any! Regarding DRA, post-partum women in our country desperately need well-done, high quality studies promoting a specific and well-described exercise for healing. In addition, in our patriarchal health care model, we need to show without a shadow of a doubt that treating post-partum muscle weakness, body mechanics issues and DRA is essential for saving money in the long run on prolapse and urinary incontinence surgery, as well as decreasing expenditure on back pain treatments.

If our discipline could provide this research, ALL women could have access to personal, post-partum recovery. As an established part of the health care system and with longer treatment times and the chance to get to know our patients better, physical therapists are the IDEAL healthcare practitioners to ensure that post-partum women are getting adequate physical retraining, but also psycho-social support that is so lacking in the United States.

The Women’s Health Poster Presentations at CSM in Anaheim will be on Saturday, Feb 20 from 1-3PM. I look forward to meeting with some of you and visiting about what you are working on to further the cause of improving maternal health care and DRA treatment.


Ginger Garner PT, ATC, PYT, Professional Yoga Therapy Institute, Emerald Isle, NC
Elizabeth Trausch, DPT, PYT Des Moines University, Des Moines IA
Stefanie Foster, PT, PYT Asana with Intelligence, Houston, TX
Paige Raffo, PT, PYT, CPI, Balance+Flow Physio, Bellevue, WA
Janet Drake, PT, LCCE, FACCE, PYT, Central Bucks Physical Therapy, Doylestown, PA
Stacie Razzino, PT, PYT, Free Motion Physical Therapy, Melbourne, FL
Blog post by Libby Trausch, DPT

Spitznagle T, Leong F, Van Dillen L, Prevalence of diastasis recti abdominis in a urogynecological patient population, International Urogynecology Journal. 2007; 18: 321-328.
Chiarello CM, Mcauley JA. Concurrent validity of calipers and ultrasound imaging to measure interrecti distance. Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2013; 43(7): 495-503
Benjamin DR, et al., Effects of exercise on diastasis of the rectus abdominis muscle in the antenatal and postnatal periods: a systematic review. Physiotherapy. 2014 Mar;100(1):1-8.

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