When I was 5 months pregnant with my son, I started having terrible back pain. It came on suddenly and was with me long after my beautiful baby was born. As a physical therapist, you would think I would have been able to treat myself back to a pain-free state. Despite even several tries by my colleagues, the pain persisted long after my son’s first birthday. It wasn’t until one of my colleagues, a woman’s health specialist, tested my abdominals for something called a “diastasis recti” that I was finally able to successfully treat my back pain.
Diastasis Recti Defined
A diastasis recti is a separation of the rectus abdominus muscle (the 6-pack abdominal muscle). It generally occurs during the 2nd or 3rd trimester of pregnancy and can cause moderate to severe low back symptoms.
How To Test Yourself For a Diastasis Recti
It is always best to have a trained health professional, such as a physical therapist, check you for a possible diastasis. Here is a general way to check for yourself though.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent
- Place one hand behind your head and, with the other hand, place two fingers just above your belly button.
- Do an abdominal crunch by lifting your head and shoulders off the floor
- Feel if there is more than a two-finger separation of the abdominals during the mini-crunch movement.
- Do the same separation test 2 inches above and 2 inches below the belly button.
- Anything over 2 fingers-width separation is considered a diastasis recti and should be treated.
Treating a Diastasis Recti
The good news is that a diastasis recti is easily treatable (there are a few severe cases that require surgery, but most are treatable with one exercise).
The exercise is simple:
- Place a towel (folded lengthwise) on a mat and lie down on the towel so that the towel wraps around your middle (at the umbilicus level).
- Cross your arms and grab each end of the towel
- As you do a mini-crunch, exhale and pull each end of the towel. Because your arms are crossed, this will have the effect of squeezing the towel tightly around you and essentially encouraging the rectus abdominus muscle to close completely.
- Hold that position for 2 seconds then lower your head and shoulders back down to the mat.
- Repeat 20 times at least once a day.
I began doing the “diastasis towel exercise” and had improvements in my back pain within 4 weeks. In 6 weeks, my three-finger-width separation had been reduced to a one finger-width separation. Now, if I feel the pain returning, I do the exercise for several weeks and the pain disappears completely.