An episiotomy is a surgical incision made in the area between the vagina and anus (perineum). This is done during the last stages of labor and delivery to expand the opening of the vagina to prevent tearing during the delivery of the baby.
This procedure is usually done during the delivery or birthing process when the vaginal opening does not stretch enough to allow the baby to be delivered without tearing the surrounding tissue.
Prior to the onset of labor, pregnant women may want to discuss the use of episiotomy with their care providers. It is possible that, with adequate preparation and if the stages of labor and delivery are managed with adequate coaching and support, the need for an episiotomy may be reduced.
An episiotomy is a surgical incision, usually made with sterile scissors, in the perineum as the baby's head is being delivered. This procedure may be used if the tissue around the vaginal opening begins tearing or does not seem to be stretching enough to allow the baby to be delivered.
In most cases, the physician makes a midline incision along a straight line from the lowest edge of the vaginal opening to toward the anus. In other cases, the episiotomy is performed by making a diagonal incision across the midline between the vagina and anus. This method is used much less often, may be more painful, and may require more healing time than the midline incision. After the baby is delivered through the extended vaginal opening, the incision is closed with stitches. A local anesthetic agent may be applied or injected to numb the area before it is sewn up (sutured).
Several reasons are cited for performing episiotomies. Some experts believe that an episiotomy speeds up the birthing process, making it easier for the baby to be delivered. This can be important if there is any sign of distress that may harm the mother or baby. Because tissues in this area may tear during the delivery, another reason for performing an episiotomy is that a clean incision is easier to repair than a jagged tear and may heal faster. Although the use of episiotomy is sometimes described as protecting the pelvic muscles and possibly preventing future problems with urinary incontinence, it is not clear that the procedure actually helps.
The use of episiotomy during the birthing process is fairly widespread in the United States. Estimates of episiotomy use in hospitals range from 65–95% of deliveries, depending on how many times the mother has given birth previously. This routine use of episiotomy is being reexamined in many hospitals and health care settings. However, an episiotomy is always necessary during a forceps delivery because of the size of the forceps.
It may be possible to avoid the need for an episiotomy. Pregnant women may want to talk with their care providers about the use of episiotomy during the delivery. Kegel exercises are often recommended during the pregnancy to help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles. Prenatal perineal massage may help to stretch and relax the tissue around the vaginal opening. During the delivery process, warm compresses can be applied to the area along with the use of perineal massage. Coaching and support are also important during the delivery process. A slowed, controlled pushing during the second stage of labor (when the mother gets the urge to push) may allow the tissues to stretch rather than tear. Also, an upright birthing position (rather than one where the mother is lying down) may decrease the need for an episiotomy.
The area of the episiotomy may be uncomfortable or even painful for several days. Several practices can relieve some of the pain. Cold packs can be applied to the perineal area to reduce swelling and discomfort. Use of the Sitz bath available at the hospital or birth center can ease the discomfort, too. This unit circulates warm water over the area. A squirt bottle with water can be used to clean the area after urination or defecation rather
Several side effects of episiotomy have been reported, including infection, increased pain, prolonged healing time, and increased discomfort once sexual intercourse is resumed. There is also the risk that the episiotomy incision will be deeper or longer than is necessary to permit the birth of the infant. There is a risk of increased bleeding.
In a normal and well managed delivery, an episiotomy may be avoided altogether. If an episiotomy is deemed to be necessary, a simple midline incision will be made to extend the vaginal opening without additional tearing or extensive trauma to the perineal area. Although there may be some pain associated with the healing of the episiotomy incision, relief can usually be provided with mild pain relievers and supportive measures, such as the application of cold packs.
An episiotomy incision that is too long or deep may extend into the rectum, causing more bleeding and an increased risk of infection. Additional tearing or tissue damage may occur beyond the episiotomy incision, leaving a cut and a tear to be repaired.
The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. 16th ed. Ed. Robert Berkow. Rahway, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1992.
Klein, M. C., et al. "Relationship of Episiotomy to Perineal Trauma and Morbidity, Sexual Dysfunction, and Pelvic Floor Relaxation." American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 171 (1994): 591-598.
Lydon-Rochelle, M. T., L. Albers, and D. Teaf. "Perineal Outcomes and Nurse-Midwifery Management." Journal of Nurse Midwifery 40, no. 1 (Jan./Feb. 1995): 13-18.
Altha Roberts Edgren
Kegel exercises—A series of contractions and relaxations of the muscles in the perineal area. These exercises are thought to strengthen the pelvic floor and may help prevent urinary incontinence in women.
Perineum—The area between the opening of the vagina and the anus in a woman, or the area between the scrotum and the anus in a man.
Sitz bath—A shallow tub or bowl, sometimes mounted above a toilet, that allows the perineum and buttocks to be immersed in circulating water.
Urinary incontinence—The inability to prevent the leakage or discharge of urine. This situation becomes more common as people age, and is more common in women who have given birth to more than one child.