Polyhydramnios and Oligohydramnios

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Polyhydramnios and Oligohydramnios


Polyhydramnios is a high level and oligohydramnios is low level of amniotic fluid.


Amniotic fluid is the liquid that surrounds the developing fetus during pregnancy. It is contained within the amniotic membrane that forms the amniotic sac (bag of waters). During the first three months after conception (first trimester), amniotic fluid is mainly derived from the blood plasma that diffuses through the thin tissues of the fetus into the surrounding space. After the fetal kidneys form and become functional at about 10-11 weeks, fetal urine becomes the main source of amniotic fluid and remains so for the rest of the pregnancy. In addition, the lungs also produce liquid that becomes part of the amniotic fluid. Other contributions come from fetal oral and nasal secretions and from the fetal surface of the placenta. Amniotic fluid removal is largely due to fetal swallowing and absorption into the fetal blood. Uptake also occurs across the placental surface. The volume of amniotic fluid normally increases throughout pregnancy, reaching a peak at about 32-33 weeks and remaining fairly constant or decreasing slightly thereafter. There is a wide range of normal fluid volumes with an average of 700-800 ml at 32-33 weeks. Through the processes of swallowing and urination, a fetus can recycle the entire volume in less than 24 hours. Because the normal values for amniotic fluid volume increase during pregnancy, the actual volume that constitutes polyhydramnios is dependent on the gestational age of the fetus. During the last two months of pregnancy, polyhydramnios usually refers to amniotic fluid volumes greater than 1,700-1,900 ml. Severe cases are associated with much greater fluid volume excesses. The range of fluid values diagnostic of oligohydramnios is not as wide as that for polyhydramnios. Less than 300 ml, or lower than the 5% percentile for gestational age, is usually considered the upper threshold.

Causes and symptoms

Polyhydramnios, also referred to as hydramnios, can have any one of a number of causes related either to an underlying maternal or fetal condition. Maternal diabetes, which is associated with a macrosomic (enlarged) fetus, is a common cause. The medication lithium, used to treat depression, can also increase amniotic fluid levels. Twin gestations are prone to polyhydramnios. Infections passed from mother to fetus such as rubella, cytomegalovirus, and toxoplasmosis, can also result in damage to the fetus and elevated amniotic fluid levels. Fetal abnormalities, including many that are life-threatening or lead to a significant impairment in the quality of life, are found in up to a quarter of all patients. For this reason, the initial finding of excess amniotic fluid should be followed by thorough diagnostic studies to determine the cause and the prognosis.

Because fetal swallowing is a major factor in amniotic fluid removal, fetal abnormalities that prevent fluid uptake should be investigated. These include gastrointestinal obstructions such as esophageal atresia and duodenal atresia, as well as neurological conditions that affect swallowing including anencephaly. Certain cardiac abnormalities, kidney disorders, and genetic conditions such as myotonic dystrophy and alpha-thalassemia can also cause polyhydramnios. Fetal chromosome abnormalities are frequently associated with elevated amniotic fluid levels. The more severe the polyhydramnios the more likely it is that fetal abnormalities will be present. In addition, there are other, infrequent causes, and in a number of cases, no cause can be found. Polyhydramnios can lead to maternal abdominal discomfort and respiratory difficulties as well as preterm labor. When polyhydramnios is associated with fetal abnormalities, perinatal mortality is significantly increased.

Oligohydramnios is most commonly associated with abnormalities of the fetal kidneys. Since fetal urine is the main source of amniotic fluid in the latter two-thirds of pregnancy, any condition that interferes with fetal urine production can lead to oligohydramnios. Renal agenesis, cystic kidneys, and bladder outlet obstructions are common. Meckel-Gruber syndrome, a lethal autosomal recessive genetic disorder featuring brain and kidney abnormalities and extra digits is one specific cause. Placental insufficiency and fetal growh retardation can also result in oligohydramnios. Premature rupture of membranes, especially between 16 and 24 weeks is another cause and, because amniotic fluid is important in lung growth, it can lead to underdevelopment of the lungs (pulmonary hypoplasia). In general, regardless of the cause, oligohydramnios that arises early in a pregnancy, can cause hypoplastic lungs. It can also result in space limitations within the amniotic sac that cause fetal compression and orthopedic abnormalities such as clubbed feet in the newborn. In general, oligohydramnios that begins near the time of delivery is associated with a better outcome than cases than have an onset earlier in pregnancy.


In current obstetrical practice, polyhydramnios and oligohydramnios are usually detected during a routine prenatal ultrasound. If the ultrasonographer suspects that excess or reduced fluid is present, it is customary to take measurements of pockets of fluid visualized around the fetus, calculate the amniotic fluid index (AFI), and compare it to AFI values found in standard tables. Subsequent ultrasound measurements can then be used to track the increase or decrease in fluid.

It is extremely important that the cause of an abnormal AFI be sought. Because of the high risk of fetal abnormalities, detailed ultrasound exams (targeted exams) should then be performed. The mother should be counseled about the possible complications and offered additional testing as necessary. For example, an amniocentesis for prenatal chromosome analysis may be important because of the high risk of fetal chromosome abnormalities. This test is usually indicated if fetal abnormalities are suspected on the basis of the ultrasound exam. An amniocentesis can also be used to check for fetal infections and some rare single gene defects.


Effective treatments for polyhydramnios and oligohydramnios are limited. To relieve maternal discomfort, an excess fluid level can be reduced by inserting a needle into the amniotic sac and using a syringe to withdraw excess fluid. This can be done repeatedly, if necessary. In oligohydramnios, the opposite approach of adding fluid either by increasing oral intake in the mother or by directly infusing saline into the amniotic sac has been tried in select cases. If the cause of oligohydramnios is a fetal bladder obstruction, it may be possible to place a small tube in the bladder to shunt the fluid into the amniotic sac.

Alternative treatment

In select cases where polyhydramnios is thought to be due to an increased output of fetal urine, the drug indomethicin has been used with some success, but there is concern about side effects, particularly on the fetus. Another similar drug, sulindac, is currently being investigated. If oligohydramnios is due to premature rupture of the membranes, a protocol to manage complications should be instituted.


The prognosis for both polyhydramnios and oligohydramnios depends on the cause. If excess or reduced amniotic fluid is the result of an underlying fetal abnormality, the nature of that abnormality will determine the prognosis. This is one reason why it is important to perform the necessary follow-up studies. A woman who has been diagnosed with polyhydramnios or oligohydramnios needs to be made fully aware of the types of testing available and carefully counseled about the diagnosis and its impact on the chance for a successful pregnancy outcome and a healthy infant.


Alpha-thalassemia An inherited disorder that interferes with the normal production of hemoglobin.

Anencephaly Congenital absence of the brain. Occurs during the first month of embryonic development.

Autosomal recessive A pattern of inheritance in which both copies of an autosomal gene must be abnormal for a genetic condition or disease to occur. An autosomal gene is one that is located on one of the autosomes or non-sex chromosomes. When both parents have one abnormal copy of the same gene, they have a 25% chance with each pregnancy that their offspring will have the disorder.

Congenital Present at birth.

Duodenal atresia Closure or blockage of the duodenum, the upper section of the small intestine.

Esophageal atresia Blockage or closure of the esophagus, the tube leading from the mouth to the stomach.

Gestational age The estimated age of a fetus expressed in weeks, calculated from the first day of the last normal menstrual period.

Myotonic dystrophy A genetic defect resulting in abnormal muscle function.

Placenta The flat, spongy structure that forms within the uterus during pregnancy and provides nourishment to the developing fetus.

Renal agenesis Failure of the fetal kidneys to form. Oligohydramnios usually associated with absence of both kidneys.


In order to prevent polyhydramnios or oligohydramnios, it would be necessary to prevent the underlying cause. Good control of maternal diabetes and the prevention of infections transmittable from mother to fetus are two approaches for a subset of cases, but, in general, prevention is not possible.



Cunningham, F. Gary. Williams Obstetrics. New York; McGraw-Hill, 2001

Rodeck, Charles H., and Martin J. Whittle. Fetal Medicine, Basic Science and Clinical Practice. New York, Churchill Livingstone, 1999.


Kilpactrick, Sarah J. "Therapeutic Interventions for Oligohydramnios: Amnioinfusion and Maternal Hydration" Clinical Obstetric and GYN 40, no. 2 (June 1996): 266-279.