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About a year and a half ago, I was at an obligatory social function, but having a nice enough time. I sat down with some people, made pleasant small talk, and sat through a presentation. Afterwards, the man beside me turned and said, “Now, I know you’re never supposed to ask this of a woman…”
I turned and brightly said, “Yes?” I had no clue what was coming.
“…But how far along are you?”
Ah. That. You could see the other people at the table, who already knew me, stop like they were witnessing a train wreck. I plastered a smile on my face and said, “Actually, I’m twelve weeks postpartum after my third child.”
Now, if this were me who had mistakenly called a woman pregnant, I’d think the appropriate response would be to apologize profusely. But not this gentleman! He laughed and said, “I would have guessed five months! I was an EMT,” as if that training somehow made him an expert in women’s size during pregnancy.
I ended up laughing it off because that reaction seemed preferable to curling into a ball and crying. Besides, despite what you see on the internet, it’s totally normal and healthy to not have sprung back to pre-baby shape within twelve weeks.
Over the next several months, I kept getting these comments (what’s with people, anyways?). I started doing some research and found that women who have gone through pregnancy can end up with a condition called diastasis recti, in which the connective tissue between the “six pack muscles” of your abdomen become separated down the middle. This can cause your tummy to look, um, not particularly tight. And worse, diastasis can be related to pelvic floor issues and even affect your day-to-day functioning if it’s severe enough. I asked my primary care physician about it, and he felt and said he didn’t think there was anything wrong. I wasn’t really sure, so I kept searching.
As I googled, I saw that everyone had a product or program to fix the diastasis. I asked the nurse at my gyno’s office, and she said to just do some crunches and I’d be fine (bad idea, by the way, based on what you need to heal a diastasis). I tried some alternative abdominal exercises that helped some (at least I think), but I couldn’t really measure my progress, so it was hard to tell. After a while I sort of gave up and decided this was my lot in life.
Almost a year later, I went to my yoga class and asked my terrific instructor her opinion. She palpated my abdomen a little and told me that, although she wasn’t an expert, she thought that I may indeed have diastasis recti. She then recommended a local physical therapist. I didn’t even realize physical therapy was an option! I was excited to go.
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So I went for an intake at the physical therapy office, and I was told that I had a 15 cm (6 in) diastasis that was at least 2 fingers wide (so not even counting where it was a little narrower!). To treat the problem, I started with simple abdominal exercises and went weekly, building up what I could as I practiced from home. And each week, my PT used kinesio tape on my abdomen, which is basically a tape that stretches longways but not horizontally. This tape helped hold my skin and muscles together so they could heal.
I did physical therapy for about four months. In that time, my diastasis has narrowed considerably and is only about 2.5 cm now (pretty much only right under my belly button)! My abdominal region isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely better than it was before. Actually, I told my husband that this was the strongest my ab muscles have been in about a decade!
While I was there, I asked my PT if my skin over my belly would ever tighten up too. She recommended liquid Vitamin E to apply directly to my belly, as well as collagen supplements to help rebuild my skin. While things aren’t exactly the same as before children, and I have no expectation that they will ever be, the two supplements seem to have helped!
Why did it take so long for me to find out that physical therapy was an option? After all, I Googled all about diastasis recti! Lots of people were excited to sell their splints and their exercise programs, but no one mentioned that PT could help. And while I’m glad I finally found someone who could help, I think it’s crazy that it took going to my yoga instructor instead of my doctor or gynecologist to get some answers. This is a women’s health issue, folks.
You can do a self check for diastasic recti. There’s a video of how to do it (also from my PT!) at the bottom of this post!
If you suspect you have diastasis recti, keep looking for someone who will actually help you. I think my doctor and nurse were well-meaning, but they didn’t look deeply into the situation and maybe weren’t up-to-date on the issue. Generally speaking (at least here in the States), insurance will cover PT for a month without a script from your doctor. Once I had a script sent in to my doctor (the same one who told me I was fine), he signed off, no problem, and I was able to continue to go. It was really encouraging to be able to go in weekly and actually quantify my progress. There were some weeks where the length of the separation didn’t change, but it still narrowed over that time.
If you happen to be in Central PA, may I strongly suggest the physical therapists who helped me? I went to Atlas Physical Therapy in Altoona, and they have a fantastic staff! Holly Strobel, my PT, focuses specifically on women’s health issues, so she knew exactly what exercises would work for me, and what I should avoid, such as crunches, deep twists, and anything up on all fours. Plus, Atlas has another location in State College, so if you’re over near Penn State, check them out over there instead! (Btw, the link to Atlas is NOT an affiliate; I’m just that happy with them!).
I hope this post is helpful to you. And of course, I hope you’re cherishing your time with the little one who changed your whole life, not just your body shape. Please SIGN UP if you want a link to my video of safe exercises designed to heal, not further damage, your core. Happy parenting!