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Friday, August 26, 2011

The "Truth" about Pelvic Organ Prolapse

I'm not a Dr. Oz fan, but couldn't help noticing that he was talking about something not many women like to discuss: pelvic organ prolapse. I also was intrigued not only because of my birth nerdiness, but because I share some of these complaints and wondered: does anybody else?

Supposedly the "last taboo topic" in gynecology (nah, I think that'd be having a homebirth) I was curious, because I too was hesitant to talk about it. With strangers, sure; but friends - I wasn't really anxious to share that info with people I went to high school with (which is why I don't advertise my blog around casual acquaintances - I really don't want them knowing the intimate state of my vagina.)

Anyway, Dr. Oz revealed just how common pelvic prolapse - when your reproductive organs come out through the vagina - really is. The crowd was hushed as women in many age groups looked like they were hanging on to the edge of their seats. We all cruise through the female incontinence aisles at the grocery store (on our way to somewhere else, right?) and know those problems exist, and that they're actually pretty common. (There's even an entire company devoted to sending you your incontinence products, in discreet packaging directly to your house, so as to avoid being spotted at the grocery store.)

The primary risk factors are childbirth (especially after having several children), weight, and age. The problem is, Dr. Oz - and pretty much everyone else outside the birth advocacy circle - don't tell you that how you give birth can impact your risk factors.

If there's one thing I'd like to change about my vaginal birth, it's directed pushing. As one article on Dr. Oz's website said, "You take a genetic predisposition, a 9 pound baby, and three hours of pushing" and it's not a wonder we have these problems.

Back up a minute.

Three hours of pushing - even the one hour and ten minutes I pushed - is probably more common than it should be in hospitals. From my experience, I know I had absolutely no desire to push. Laboring down was not an option, and I wish I knew better to just wait for my body to do it on its own. Even if you were knocked unconscious, your body would still involuntarily contract and push that baby out on its own, but who has time for that anymore? It's rush rush rush to get the baby out (even in the absence of problems) and move on to someone else.

Consider what happens when you're constipated and trying to have a bowel movement. Pushing and straining - much like during childbirth - are probably going to do little more than produce a wicked case of hemmorhoids and even rectal bleeding. But if you wait until you have the urge (which is involuntary, much like pushing out a baby) it's a lot easier with a lot less work. So even though I personally detest the phrase 'it's like taking the biggest crap of your life' to describe childbirth, in some ways it can be compared, yes.

In the process of laboring down, the body can actually stop the labor process altogether, sort of as a last-ditch effort to conserve energy for the big event. And like a bowel movement, most women describe the urge to push as uncontrollable and something they just had to do. Unfortunately, I have never experienced that feeling, the feeling of knowing my body is doing something on its own volition because that's what it's supposed to do - not push a baby out at lightning speed just because somebody told me to.

In reading about the subject, some physicians simply blame childbirth in and of itself for prolapse, while others say traumatic childbirth is a cause. I'm not sure women realize there is any other kind, which is sad. Things like cord traction - literally pulling on the cord to get the placenta to detach from the uterine wall - is another risk factor. Forceps deliveries, episiotomies (again, largely unnecessary but done anyway) and prolonged, directed pushing are other causes, and yet all are considered standard procedure in many labor and delivery wards. In other words, we've experienced this crap for so long that we don't even know it's the cause - and that it's not really as normal as we think it is. We're normalizing the abnormal.

Many times, in an effort to avoid postpartum hemmorhaging after birth, they use cord traction to avoid a "retained placenta" - and cause even more bleeding as a result.

"Retained placenta" is another term I have a problem with. While the standard seems to be around 30 minutes after birth, it seems that, like everything else, it's different for everyone. While I'm obviously not an expert, I'd guess that in the absence of bleeding - and with the presence of breastfeeding right away - leaving it more than half an hour is probably okay. When I did some quick searching on it, I found several who said an hour, two hours - even 30 hours - and she lived to tell the tale. *gasp!*

More often than not it seems doctors are too quick to expect the placenta to come out and rush it with cord traction, which is often quite painful and dangerous if too much force is applied. I've also talked with people who agree their doctor was way too eager to detach the placenta and literally yanked on it - which can cause the very complications you're supposed to be preventing.

One study has shown that injections of oxytocin into the umbilical cord vein does not decrease the need for manual placenta removal; however, you're back to that murky definition of 'retained placenta' again. According to the article, retained placenta is more likely to happen to women in "wealthier nations." Not surprisingly, the study found that among women in the UK, Uganda and Pakistan, the women in the UK were more likely to have a retained placenta:
The researchers also found that the need for manual removal was higher in the United Kingdom (69 percent) than in Pakistan (62 percent) or Uganda (47 percent).
Many are quick to point out how dangerous it is to give birth in third-world nations like Pakistan and Uganda. While there is no doubt some truth to that, giving birth with overloads of obstetrical interventions - like in the UK - is probably just as bad. (Side note: not surprisingly, Uganda is the only nation of the three that doesn't have a relatively low rate of breastfeeding, which is often a good way to encourage the placenta to detach by itself. Incidentally, the CDC has determined that most US hospitals are severely lacking in their breastfeeding support, which could be further contributing to this problem. Add to that the frequent, often prolonged separation of mother and baby immediately following birth and it could add to further reliance on active management of the third stage of labor.)

Ironically, many in the UK scratch their hands and wonder why women in the UK are experiencing this problem, despite having access to all the best care and resources. Dr. Andrew D. Weeks of the University of Liverpool thinks prolonged cord traction might be an issue. Ya think?

Some sites list things like "unusually large babies" as a cause - perhaps it's more the interventions perceived as necessary in delivering that "large" child (and the idea that everyone has a different definition of what a large baby really is) that are key here. It's not uncommon for someone to have a very actively managed labor with a larger baby that results in significant trauma to the pelvic floor. Conversely, we hear of many women successfully delivering bigger babies with little if any tearing - which can depend on the birth setting. (Home birth? Natural hospital birth?) and the attendant (midwife vs. doctor? Someone who is more pro-natural birth?)

Sadly, doctors like Dr. Oz and urologist Jennifer Berman might hand out less-than-helpful advice because they've never actually seen a normal birth in progress. They often see the end result of years worth of obstetrical manipulation and intervention and chalk it up to just plain old childbirth itself, perhaps recommending an elective cesarean to avoid all that damage (even though studies have shown it doesn't). Yes, some women will be prone to this - for a number of factors besides childbearing - despite having an intervention-free birth. Some women get it and they've never even given birth. But until you can compare what often is and what could be, you have no real idea that the process is totally tampered with.

In doing some reading, I came across a very sad post by a nurse who experienced a pretty difficult birth, no doubt precipitated by the fact that she was induced at 37 weeks. The baby sounds like it just wasn't ready, but doctors attempted every means possible to get that child to come out, resulting in some nasty-sounding results. She wondered if she had a case against them because of everything she went through.

Some of the answers she got were quite shocking. Daring to call the normal 'abnormal,' she got berated, told she was a liar, and that what she went through didn't happen as she said it did. She was told that "controlled cord traction" was basically no big deal and an "acceptable practice." Maybe so, but it shouldn't be, especially in the absence of other complications. In the end, another forum user piped up and said "You think you had it bad??" as it to get into a virtual pissing contest about who could tell the most Horrible Birth Story Ever. I felt sad for the woman, not only because these women attacked her for questioning the status quo, but because they echoed what our legal system tells us: that unless you have something permanently wrong with either you or the baby, that you should just shut up and get over it.

After seeing some of the audience members on Dr. Oz's show, you realize that women have basically been giving birth violently for decades, perhaps even more than a century. I didn't see any hippie mamas standing up in the audience saying, "Well, I had a natural home birth and mother-led pushing in any position I wanted to, so I don't have that problem." She'd probably be stoned to death if she did. That, and the number of what we could call near-failed inductions - those where a vaginal birth happens but I'm not sure I'd call it successful, exactly - probably means more women are continuing to suffer.

While Dr. Oz's segment was titled "Suffering in Silence: The Shame of Pelvic Prolapse," I really think the people who should be feeling shame are those who insist on continuing these practices even though it's not in the best interests of their patients.

More reading:
Diagnosis and management of retained placenta after vaginal birth - Dr. Andrew Weeks talks about the risks and complications of retained placenta, but admits:
There is no consensus worldwide as to the length of the third stage after which a placenta should be termed "retained" and intervention initiated.

Controlled cord traction versus minimal intervention techniques in delivery of the placenta: a randomized controlled trial - This study suggests the use of CCT is beneficial and says that a continuous infusion of oxytocin were given to each patient after delivery of the placenta. I'm curious, though, what percentage of mothers breastfed immediately after birth, and how long were their placentas retained before someone decided to manually remove it?

Controlled Cord Traction During Third Stage of Labor - This study seems to contradict what the previous one said, in that
"Controlled cord traction (CCT) is actively promoted in combination with prophylactic uterotonics for the prevention of PPH. While the administration of uterotonics has been proven effective, there is no evidence of CCT being beneficial or safe. 

The purpose of the study was to determine: 
  1. In women having term, single vaginal deliveries in hospital settings, in whom the third stage is managed with prophylactic oxytocin, does CCT produce a clinically significant reduction in the incidence of postpartum blood lose? (sic)
  2. In these women, does CCT produce a clinically significant increase in the incidence of severe complications, including uterine inversion or the need for subsequent surgical evacuation of retained placental tissues and membranes (curettage or manual removal)?
Injections Aren't Solution for Retained Placenta: Study - ABC News
Management of the Third Stage of Labor - Medscape
The third stage of labor refers to the period following the completed delivery of the newborn until the completed delivery of the placenta. Relatively little thought or teaching seems to be devoted to the third stage of labor compared with that given to the first and second stages. A leading North American obstetrics text devotes only 4 of more than 1500 pages to the third stage of labor but significantly more to the complications that may arise immediately following delivery.[1] One respected author states: "This indeed is the unforgiving stage of labor, and in it there lurks more unheralded treachery than in both the other stages combined. The normal case can, within a minute, become abnormal and successful delivery can turn swiftly to disaster."
While that may be true to some extent, why do our bodies have these built-in mechanisms to aid this natural, physiologic process?
Postpartum Hemorrhage - Wikipedia 
Cochrane database study[5] suggests that active management (use of uterotonic drugs, cord clamping and controlled cord traction) of the third stage of labour reduces severe maternal bleeding and anemia compared to expectant management. However, the review also found that active management reduced the baby’s birthweight and increased the mother's blood pressure, afterpains, nausea, vomiting, and use of drugs for pain relief. The number of women returning to hospital with bleeding also increased. Another Cochrane database study[6], focusing specifically on the timing of the administration of the uterotonic drug oxytocin as part of the active management of the third stage of labour, suggested that administering the drug before the expulsion of the placenta did not have any significant influence on the incidence of postpartum hemorrhage when compared to administering the drug after the expulsion of the placenta.
 Eight Ways to Avoid Pitocin in Labor and Why You Should - Birth Sense blog 


Anonymous said...

sometimes you can wait for the urge to push, I didn't even push with my 5 1/2 pound 1st baby. placental came out in 15 min. homebirth. I have cervical prolapse, after the 2nd baby again born at home it was worse. Sometimes its just the luck of the draw. c-sectioned moms have these problems as well.

Christine Montgomery said...

I read some articles about pelvic organ prolapse too and found some rather disturbing news too about the pelvic mesh repair surgery. I hope that I won't be facing these problems after child birth.

Anonymous said...

I am having the same issue described here. I have just birthed my fourth baby and this was the first time I said Doctor I am ready to push. I meant push the placenta out, just as I did with my previous births. And my doctor said no, don't push. I don't know why I listened to him. He has twenty years experience in delivering babies, and so I thought he must have a reason for telling me not to push, so I obeyed and he pulled out my placenta less than 10 minutes after my babies birth. Then three weeks later, I look at my vagina and realize I have cervical prolapse. It is so upsetting, especially if I may have to get surgery to correct it and no longer be able to have children. These foolish doctors following their procedures instead of allowing women to birth naturally as they have been doing for thousands of years without any interventions.