Uterine Rupture

Pregnant Mother in DistressA uterine rupture is a very uncommon pregnancy complication where the wall of the uterus suddenly tears open. With a severe uterine rupture the tear goes through all the layers of the uterus wall and leaves a hole through which the baby can actually come out. Uterine rupture is an extremely dangerous event that often has devastating consequences for both baby and mother. Uterine rupture occurs in less than 1% (0.07%) of all pregnancies, making one of the least common pregnancy complications. Uterine ruptures often occur at the site of a scar line from a prior C-section. This increased risk of uterine rupture is the primary reason why attempting a vaginal delivery after a prior C-section (VBAC) is considered high risk. Uterine rupture most often occurs during labor but it can also occur earlier during pregnancy.

Symptoms of Uterine Rupture

The signs and physical symptoms of a uterine rupture tend to vary based on when the rupture occurs, the location of the rupture and the extent of the tear. Uterine ruptures occurring along the scar tissue from a prior C-section are generally less intense and result in less dramatic symptoms compared to a spontaneous rupture of a an unscarred uterus. In fact, it is widely accepted in the medical community that a uterine scar and the use of uterotonic agents for induction are the most important risk factors identified for uterine rupture.

The classic first sign of a uterine rupture is abdominal pain, particularly when there is an epidural block in place.

The fetal monitor can be helpful in picking up a concern about uterine rupture. The fetal tracing may indicate that a uterine rupture is taking place. Prolonged deceleration of the fetal heart rate is the most consistent finding in cases of uterine rupture.

The principal clinical symptoms of uterine rupture also include:

  • Sudden fetal duress (abnormal fetal heart rate)
  • Drop in uterine pressure
  • Slower and less intense contractions with pain in between
  • Recession of the baby's head back into the birth canal
  • Excessive bleeding and maternal shock

The problem with clinically diagnosing uterine rupture is that these primary symptoms are often caused by other obstetrical complications or events. Continued fetal heart rate deceleration and/or prolonged fetal bradycardia is often the only indication of uterine rupture. This type of fetal distress occurs in approximately 79-80% of all cases of uterine rupture. Abdominal pain has been found to be a much less reliable indicator, occurring in only about 5% of uterine rupture cases.

Diagnosing Uterine Rupture

When uterine rupture occurs during labor and delivery, there is an extremely short window of time for doctors to respond to avoid injury to the baby. This means there is no time to perform an ultrasound or any other diagnostic imaging scan or other sort of testing. Uterine rupture has to be diagnosed quickly based on clinical symptoms alone. Ultrasound imaging does have some application in evaluating the likelihood that scar tissue from a prior C-section will result in uterine rupture.

Treatment & Management of Uterine Rupture

The most important factors in the treatment and management of uterine rupture are (a) timely recognition and presumptive diagnosis of the rupture; and (b) immediate intervention to deliver the baby as quickly as possible. As soon as doctors even suspect uterine rupture, they must immediately stabilize the mother and then try to deliver the baby as fast as possible. According to various studies, once rupture of the uterus occurs doctors will only have between 10-35 minutes to successfully respond to avoid serious fetal injury or death. Intervention almost always involves an emergency C-section delivery.

Once the baby is successfully delivered via C-section, doctors will need to surgically repair the mother's torn uterus. In some cases the uterine rupture may trigger major blood loss requiring doctors to perform an emergency hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) following the C-section. This is more likely when the uterus tear is longitudinal as opposed to transverse. Around 5-13% of women will require a hysterectomy after a uterine rupture.

Sometimes, the solution to a developing uterine rupture is to turn of the Pitocin (or Cervidil or other stimulant of uterine activity). Pitocin is used to expedite delivery. Overuse of Pitocin in labor is a well-known and documented cause of uterine ruptures. The package insert on Pitocin says as much.

In a fifty-three year review of uterine ruptures and the and risk factors and causes of uterine ruptures, an article published in the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists concluded most uterine rupture cases are avoidable. The articles states the in the "majority of the cases (58.3%) of uterine rupture were associated with mid-forcep delivery, breech or version extractions, injudicious use of [Pitocin], and prolonged labor. Thus, the majority of cases must be viewed as potentially avoidable." This study further found that 12.5% uterine ruptures were the result of mistakes doctors and nurses made with Pitocin.

Birth Injuries From Uterine Rupture

A uterine rupture is one of the most catastrophic complications that can occur during childbirth. Once the uterus ruptures the baby is immediately at risk of acute oxygen deprivation. If the fetus or the placenta extrudes through the tear in the uterus wall, an adverse outcome is almost unavoidable. Even if doctors immediately intervene and perform an emergency C-section within 10-30 minutes of diagnosing uterine rupture, this still may not be enough to prevent hypoxia and serious infant brain injury. Fetal death from asphyxia is a serious threat. Approximately 6% of all babies will not survive a uterine rupture. Serious brain injuries such as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) and cerebral palsy are often the result of any delay in responding to uterine rupture.

More Medical Literature
  • Ofir, K., et al., Uterine rupture: Differences between a scarred and an unscarred uterus. Am J Obstet Gynecol 191:425-429 (August 2004).
  • Kunz, MK, et al, Incidence of Uterine Tachysystole in Women Induced with Oxytocin, JOGNN 42:12-18 (2013).