The placenta is an organ that provides nutrients to your baby while you’re pregnant. It’s typically implanted in the upper part of your uterus, and it normally detaches from the uterine wall after you deliver your baby.

However, in the case of placental abruption, the placenta detaches too early. This can cause complications, because your baby may not get enough oxygen or nutrients. You can also experience bleeding that’s harmful to you and your baby.

According to the March of Dimes, an estimated 1 in 100 women experience placental abruption. It’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms of placental abruption, so that you can seek treatment quickly.

The main symptom of placental abruption is vaginal bleeding. However, sometimes blood can become trapped behind the placenta, and 20 percent of women do not experience vaginal bleeding. Other symptoms that can occur with placental abruption include:

  • discomfort
  • sudden stomach or back pain
  • tenderness

These symptoms will get worse over time. Call your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms. This is especially true if you experience vaginal bleeding in your third trimester.

The following risk factors can increase the likelihood you may experience placental abruption:

  • being older than 35
  • being pregnant with multiple babies
  • experiencing a traumatic injury, such as a car accident, fall, or physical abuse
  • having a history of high blood pressure or previous abruptions
  • having pregnancy complications, such as a uterine infection, umbilical cord problems, or high amounts of amniotic fluid
  • smoking cigarettes
  • using illegal drugs, such as cocaine

According to the March of Dimes, a woman who’s had a previous abruption has a 10 percent chance of having another one in a future pregnancy.

However, doctors don’t know an exact cause of placental abruption. Having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll experience a placental abruption.

A doctor diagnoses placental abruption by conducting a physical exam, and often by performing an ultrasound. You doctor may also conduct blood tests and fetal monitoring.

Your doctor may suspect placental abruption, but they can only truly diagnose it after you’ve given birth. They will try to collect as much information as possible to make the best decision for you and your baby.

The treatment for placental abruption depends upon the severity of the abruption. Your doctor will determine if your placental abruption is mild, moderate, or severe. Mild placental abruption is when blood loss has occurred, but the bleeding has slowed and you and your baby are stable.

Treatments will also depend on how far along you are in your pregnancy. If you’ve lost a significant amount of blood, you may need a blood transfusion.

  • Mild placental abruption at 24 to 34 weeks. If you and your baby are doing well, your doctor may give you medications to try and speed up your baby’s lung development and allow them to keep developing. If your bleeding seems to have stopped or slowed, your doctor may send you home. Otherwise, you may need to remain in the hospital for close monitoring.
  • Mild placental abruption at 34 weeks or greater. If you’re near full-term, your doctor may induce labor or perform a cesarean delivery. If your baby has had time to develop, an earlier delivery can reduce the risks for further complications.
  • Moderate to severe placental abruption. This degree of placental abruption — marked by significant blood loss and complications to you and your baby — usually requires immediate delivery, often by cesarean.

In rare instances, if your doctor can’t stop your bleeding, you may need a hysterectomy. This is the surgical removal of the uterus. Again, this is in rare instances of severe bleeding.

Looking out for your health and safety can help prevent placental abruption. This includes always wearing your seatbelt, refraining from smoking, and keeping your blood pressure at a healthy level. However, you can’t always prevent placental abruption from occurring.

Babies born to mothers who experience placental abruption are at higher risk for some pregnancy-related complications. These include:

  • difficulty growing at a normal rate
  • premature birth, or birth that occurs before 37 weeks of pregnancy
  • stillbirth

If placental abruption occurs after 37 weeks of pregnancy, a baby is less likely to experience health problems than babies born at earlier gestation.

It’s very important to seek treatment as quickly as possible for potential placental abruption. According to the American Pregnancy Association, 15 percent of severe placental abruption cases end in fetal death.

Placental abruption is a pregnancy complication that doesn’t have a known cause. However, if you’re at a higher risk of placental abruption, you can work to reduce your risk. If you’re in your third trimester and experience vaginal bleeding, call your doctor immediately.