There are a number of illnesses and disorders of pregnancy that can threaten the well-being of both mother and child. Obstetrical emergencies may also occur during active labor, and after delivery (postpartum).
Obstetrical emergencies of pregnancy
PLACENTAL ABRUPTION. In mild cases of placental abruption, bed rest may prevent further separation of the placenta and stem bleeding. If a significant abruption (over 50%) occurs, the fetus may have to be delivered immediately and a blood transfusion may be required.
PLACENTA PREVIA. Hospitalization or highly restricted at-home bed rest is usually recommended if placenta previa is diagnosed after the twentieth week of pregnancy. If the
PREECLAMPSIA/ECLAMPSIA. Treatment of preeclampsia depends upon the age of the fetus and the acuteness of the condition. A woman near full term who has only mild toxemia may have labor induced to deliver the child as soon as possible. Severe preeclampsia in a woman near term also calls for immediate delivery of the child, as this is the only known cure for the condition. However, if the fetus is under 28 weeks, the mother may be hospitalized and steroids may be administered to try to hasten lung development in the fetus. If the life of the mother or fetus appears to be in danger, the baby is delivered immediately, usually by cesarean section.
PREMATURE RUPTURE OF MEMBRANES (PROM). If PROM occurs before 37 weeks and/or results in significant leakage of amniotic fluid, a course of intravenous antibiotics is started. A culture of the cervix may be taken to analyze for the presence of bacterial infection. If the fetus is close to term, labor is typically induced if contractions do not start within 24 hours of rupture.
Obstetrical emergencies during labor and delivery
AMNIOTIC FLUID EMBOLISM. The stress of contractions can cause this complication, which has a high mortality rate. Administering steroids to the mother and delivering the fetus as soon as possible is the standard treatment.
INVERSION OR RUPTURE OF UTERUS. An inverted uterus is either manually or surgical replaced to the proper position. A ruptured uterus is repaired if possible, although if the damage is extreme, a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) may be performed. A blood transfusion may be required in either case if hemorrhaging occurs.
PLACENTA ACCRETA. Women who experience placenta accreta will typically need to have their placenta surgically removed after delivery. Hysterectomy is necessary in some cases.
PROLAPSED UMBILICAL CORD. Saline may be infused into the vagina to relieve the compression. If the cord has prolapsed out the vaginal opening, it may be replaced, but immediate delivery by cesarean section is usually indicated.
Obstetrical emergencies postpartum
POSTPARTUM HEMORRHAGE OR INFECTION. The source of the hemorrhage is determined, and blood transfusion and IV fluids are given as necessary. Oxytocic drugs may be administered to encourage contraction of the uterus. Retained placenta is a frequent cause of persistent bleeding, and surgical removal of the remaining fragments (curettage) may be required. Surgical repair of lacerations to the birth canal or uterus may be required. Drugs that encourage coagulation (clotting) of the blood may be administered to stem the bleeding. Infrequently, hysterectomy is required.
In cases of infection, a course of intravenous antibiotics is prescribed. Most postpartum infections occur in the endometrium, or lining of the uterus, and may be also caused by a piece of retained placenta. If this is the case, it will also require surgical removal.
SHOULDER DYSTOCIA. The mother is usually positioned with her knees to her chest, known as the McRoberts maneuver, in an effort to free the child's shoulder. An episiotomy is also performed to widen the vaginal opening. If the shoulder cannot be dislodged from the pelvis, the baby's clavicle (collarbone) may have to be broken to complete the delivery before a lack of oxygen causes brain damage to the infant.
Causes and symptoms
Obstetrical emergencies can be caused by a number of factors, including stress, trauma, genetics, and other variables. In some cases, past medical history, including previous pregnancies and deliveries, may help an obstetrician anticipate the possibility of complications.
Signs and symptoms of an obstetrical emergency include, but are not limited to:
- Diminished fetal activity. In the late third trimester, fewer than ten movements in a two hour period may indicate that the fetus is in distress.
- Abnormal bleeding. During pregnancy, brown or white to pink vaginal discharge is normal, bright red blood or blood containing large clots is not. After delivery, continual blood loss of over 500 ml indicates hemorrhage.
- Leaking amniotic fluid. Amniotic fluid is straw-colored and may easily be confused with urine leakage, but can be differentiated by its slightly sweet odor.
- Severe abdominal pain. Stomach or lower back pain can indicate preeclampsia or an undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy. Postpartum stomach pain can be a sign of infection or hemorrhage.
- Contractions. Regular contractions before 37 weeks of gestation can signal the onset of preterm labor due to obstetrical complications.
- Abrupt and rapid increase in blood pressure. Hypertension is one of the first signs of toxemia.
- Edema. Sudden and significant swelling of hands and feet caused by fluid retention from toxemia.
- Unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge. A thick, malodorous discharge from the vagina can indicate a postpartum infection.
- Fever. Fever may indicate an active infection.
- Loss of consciousness. Shock due to blood loss (hemorrhage) or amniotic embolism can precipitate a loss of consciousness in the mother.
- Blurred vision and headaches. Vision problems and headache are a possible symptom of preeclampsia.
Diagnosis of an obstetrical emergency typically takes place in a hospital or other urgent care facility. A specialist will take the patient's medical history and perform a pelvic and general physical examination. The mother's vital signs are taken, and if preeclampsia is suspected, blood pressure may be monitored over a period of time. The fetal heartbeat is assessed with a doppler stethoscope, and diagnostic blood and urine tests of the mother may also be performed, including laboratory analysis for protein and/or bacterial infection. An abdominal ultrasound may aid in the diagnosis of any condition that involves a malpositioned placenta, such as placenta previa or placenta abruption.
In cases where an obstetrical complication is suspected, a fetal heart monitor is positioned externally on the mother's abdomen. If the fetal heart rate is erratic or weak, or if it does not respond to movement, the fetus may be in distress. A biophysical profile (BPP) may also be performed to evaluate the health of the fetus. The BPP uses data from an ultrasound examination to analyze the fetus size, movement, heart rate, and surrounding amniotic fluid.
If the mother's membranes have ruptured and her cervix is partially dilated, an internal fetal scalp electrode can be inserted through the vagina to assess heart rate. A fetal oximetry monitor that measures the oxygen saturation levels of the fetus may also be attached to the scalp.
If a fetus is close to full-term (37 weeks) and the complication is detected early enough, the prognosis is usually good for mother and child. With advances in neonatal care, approximately 85% of infants weighing less than 3 lbs 5 oz survive, and these infants are being delivered at 28 weeks and younger. However, preterm infants have a greater chance of serious medical problems, and developmental
Proper prenatal care is the best prevention for obstetrical emergencies. When complications of pregnancy do arise, pregnant women who see their OB/GYN on a regular basis are more likely to get an early diagnosis, and with it, the best chance for fast and effective treatment. In addition, eating right and taking prenatal vitamins and supplements as recommended by a physician will also contribute to the health of both mother and child.
Pearlman, Mark D and Judith Tintinalli, eds. Emergency Care of the Woman. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
Chamberlain, Geoffrey and Phillip Steer. "Obstetric Emergencies." British Medical Journal. 318, no. 7194 (May 1999):1342.
"Women's Lives at Risk: Preventable Deaths, Avoidable Injuries." Population Reports. 25, no. 1 (Sept 1997):3.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Clearinghouse. Bldg 31, Room 2A32, MSC 2425, 31 Center Drive, Bethesda, MD 20892-2425. (800) 370-2943. <http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/health.htm>.
Amniotic fluid—The liquid in the placental sac that cushions the fetus and regulates temperature in the placental environment. Amniotic fluid also contains fetal cells.
Cesarean section—The surgical delivery of a fetus through an incision in the uterus.
Embolism—Blood vessel obstruction by a blood clot or other substance (i.e., air, cell matter).
Episiotomy—Incision of the perineum, the area between the vulva and the anus, to assist delivery and avoid severe tearing of the perineum.
Laparoscopic—A minimally-invasive surgical or diagnostic procedure that uses a flexible endoscope (laparoscope) to view and operate on structures in the abdomen.