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What Is Placental Abruption?


The placenta is an organ that provides nutrients to your baby while you’re pregnant. Its typical location is in the upper part of the 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.

What Are the Symptoms of Placental Abruption?

The main symptom of placental abruption is vaginal bleeding. However, sometimes blood can become trapped behind the placenta, and you won’t experience vaginal bleeding. Other symptoms that can occur with placental abruption include:

  • discomfort
  • 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.

What Are the Risk Factors and Causes for Placental Abruption?

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.

How Is Placental Abruption Diagnosed?

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.

What Are the Treatments for Placental Abruption?

The treatment for placental abruption will depend upon how severe the abruption is. A doctor may determine a 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 have 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 are 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 is defined when your blood loss is significant and you or your baby is having complications. This degree of placental abruption usually means you should deliver as quickly as possible, often by cesarean.

In rare instances, if your doctor cannot 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.

How Can You Prevent Placental Abruption?

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.

What Is the Outlook for Placental Abruption?

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 are at a higher risk of placental abruption, you can work to reduce your risk. If you are in your third trimester and experience vaginal bleeding, call your doctor immediately. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN
Medically reviewed on: Dec 23, 2015: Janine Kelbach, RNC-OB

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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