It’s a condition that can cause long-term pain and protruding bellies but some patients, particularly women, say it is too often being ignored.

Diastasis recti is the medical term for when abdominal muscles become separated. It can happen to people who are overweight or who exercise improperly, but women who give birth are most affected.

The growing uterus and pushing during labour can separate the muscles. Research suggests the condition -- sometimes called “mummy tummy” – may occur in up to 80 per cent of moms, although the number affected a year post-pregnancy is closer to 30 per cent.

Shelley Kath was diagnosed with diastasis recti after giving birth at age 42. “They just mentioned it,” she recalls. “They said ‘Oh don’t worry about it, it’ll heal itself.’”

More than a decade and a half later, Kath was walking by a mirror and saw her stomach bulging out. “It looked sort of like I had swallowed a football,” she says.

Kath searched online and realized that diastasis recti was likely causing not only her bulging stomach but also the severe back pain she was experiencing.

Julie Tupler, a registered nurse in New York who has developed an educational program targeting diastasis recti, says the condition is too often dismissed as cosmetic and doctors should be screening for it.

“If somebody says they have back pain, they should be checked for a diastasis. If they have a pelvic floor issue, they should be checked for a diastasis. Everybody should be checked,” she says.

Tupler was recently in Montreal teaching new moms techniques that she believes can help. Her program includes ways to sit, stand, sneeze, cough and pick things up without doing damage, in addition to exercises. Tupler also recommends using an abdominal splint.

Dr. Richard Brown, a Montreal obstetrician-gynecologist, says screening might not be worthwhile because research hasn’t shown exercises to be an effective treatment for the symptoms, and surgery is reserved for only the most severe cases.

“Screening is useful if you have something you can do about it,” he says. “The problem is at the moment (the non-surgical interventions) don’t seem to make a difference.”

Jennifer Smith is a mother of two with diastasis recti, and she agrees with Tupler that doctors ought to do more screening.

“It shouldn't be normal to experience pain when you are doing normal everyday activities like bending down, sitting on the floor, getting up,” she says.

With a report from CTV Medical Correspondent Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip