Obstetrical Emergencies

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Obstetrical Emergencies


Obstetrical emergencies are life-threatening medical conditions that occur in pregnancy or during or after labor and delivery.


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

ECTOPIC PREGNANCY. An ectopic, or tubal, pregnancy occurs when the fertilized egg implants itself in the fallopian tube rather than the uterine wall. If the pregnancy is not terminated at an early stage, the fallopian tube will rupture, causing internal hemorrhaging and potentially resulting in permanent infertility.

PLACENTAL ABRUPTION. Also called abruptio placenta, placental abruption occurs when the placenta separates from the uterus prematurely, causing bleeding and contractions. If over 50% of the placenta separates, both the fetus and mother are at risk.

PLACENTA PREVIA. When the placenta attaches to the mouth of the uterus and partially or completely blocks the cervix, the position is termed placenta previa (or low-lying placenta). Placenta previa can result in premature bleeding and possible postpartum hemorrhage.

PREECLAMPSIA/ECLAMPSIA. Preeclampsia (toxemia), or pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, causes severe edema (swelling due to water retention) and can impair kidney and liver function. The condition occurs in approximately 5% of all United States pregnancies. If it progresses to eclampsia, toxemia is potentially fatal for mother and child.

PREMATURE RUPTURE OF MEMBRANES (PROM). Premature rupture of membranes is the breaking of the bag of waters (amniotic fluid) before contractions or labor begins. The situation is only considered an emergency if the break occurs before thirty-seven weeks and results in significant leakage of amniotic fluid and/or infection of the amniotic sac.

Obstetrical emergencies during labor and delivery

AMNIOTIC FLUID EMBOLISM. A rare but frequently fatal complication of labor, this condition occurs when amniotic fluid embolizes from the amniotic sac and through the veins of the uterus and into the circulatory system of the mother. The fetal cells present in the fluid then block or clog the pulmonary artery, resulting in heart attack. This complication can also happen during pregnancy, but usually occurs in the presence of strong contractions.

INVERSION OR RUPTURE OF UTERUS. During labor, a weak spot in the uterus (such as a scar or a uterine wall that is thinned by a multiple pregnancy) may tear, resulting in a uterine rupture. In certain circumstances, a portion of the placenta may stay attached to the wall and will pull the uterus out with it during delivery. This is called uterine inversion.

PLACENTA ACCRETA. Placenta accreta occurs when the placenta is implanted too deeply into the uterine wall, and will not detach during the late stages of childbirth, resulting in uncontrolled bleeding.

PROLAPSED UMBILICAL CORD. A prolapse of the umbilical cord occurs when the cord is pushed down into the cervix or vagina. If the cord becomes compressed, the oxygen supply to the fetus could be diminished, resulting in brain damage or possible death.

SHOULDER DYSTOCIA. Shoulder dystocia occurs when the baby's shoulder(s) becomes wedged in the birth canal after the head has been delivered.

Obstetrical emergencies postpartum

POSTPARTUM HEMORRHAGE OR INFECTION. Severe bleeding or uterine infection occurring after delivery is a serious, potentially fatal situation.

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 possible symptoms 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.


Obstetrical emergencies of pregnancy

ECTOPIC PREGNANCY. Treatment of an ectopic pregnancy is laparoscopic surgical removal of the fertilized ovum. If the fallopian tube has burst or been damaged, further surgery will be necessary.

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 fetus is at least 36 weeks old and the lungs are mature, a cesarean section is performed to deliver the baby.

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.


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 disabilities occur in 25-50%. They also have a higher incidence of learning disorders, and are four to six times more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD ).


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.



Chamberlain, Geoffrey, and Phillip Steer. "Obstetric Emergencies." British Medical Journal. 318, no.7194 (May 1999): 1342.


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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.

Postpartum After childbirth.