Severe tearing in childbirth – not just a physical problem

NB I’ve edited this post to clarify that Liz Skinner’s research focuses primarily on women with damage to the levator ani muscle rather than with obstetric tearing.

A traumatic vaginal birth in which the levator ani and external anal sphincter muscles are damaged can cause mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a new study from Liz Skinner. About half the women also had severe tearing.

About 90% of women experience tearing during childbirth, but most are first or second degree tears, which are relatively mild and heal quickly. Approximately six percent of women have third or fourth degree tears that can damage the anal sphincter. Skinner and Hans Peter Dietz have also pioneered research into damage to the levator ani muscle (LAM), which can be devastating for women. The argue that the problems of a difficult vaginal birth tend to be overlooked in the drive to reduce caesarean sections, which are usually perceived as more risky for both mother and baby.

The study identified 40 first-time mothers with major pelvic floor trauma and interviewed them one-to-four years after they gave birth. Just over half (22) of the women had “major obstetric anal sphincter tears.”

Of the 40 women, 35 had “Multiple symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction” causing lifestyle alteration. These symptoms included “urinary or fecal incontinence, prolapse, chronic pain, dyspareunia [painful intercourse]”.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that 27 experienced PTSD symptoms, including “poor baby bonding, flashbacks during sex, dissociation, avoidance, anxiety”.

Probably the most worrying themes to emerge from the study were the lack of awareness or communication from health professionals:

  • 36 women said there was no information provided by clinicians on potential postnatal pelvic floor morbidities
  • 36 said that there was no postnatal assessment of their injuries
  • 26 said that they experienced “dismissive reactions from poorly informed clinicians to maternal injuries. One woman said: “The midwife said that this was OK… but I knew that it was not normal… The doctors really did not understand the situation… I was in shock – devastated and unable to get any health professional to understand.”

Although the study was carried out in Australia, I’d be surprised if a UK study didn’t find something similar. I’ve now heard numerous stories about obstetric tears not being treated properly or women having their concerns dismissed as unimportant. One of the problems is that midwives often don’t see the consequences of tearing in childbirth – women are only under midwife care for 10 days after birth, so if a tear has failed to heal properly weeks, months or even, shockingly, years after birth, they’ll be dealt with by another group of health professionals entirely. So midwives may well assume, wrongly, that a tear during childbirth has healed without problems.  That may lead to an unjustified confidence that obstetric tearing isn’t a significant problem. And because LAM damage is impossible to detect without ultrasound, LAM problems are generally undiagnosed and therefore untreated.

As I’ve already reported, the RCOG is now campaigning for better understanding of obstetric tearing in childbirth, and better care for the women who experience it. But we still have a long way to go – and In the meantime, a lot of women are suffering in silence.

It’s time we talked about perineal trauma

Today’s Victoria Derbyshire programme had an excellent film about perineal injuries during childbirth. You can read the associated article and see the film here (it’s about 15 minutes long). Four women shared their experience of having third or fourth degree tears during childbirth, resulting for some of them in urinary or bowel incontinence.

One of the striking facts in the film was that between 2000 and 2012, the rate of severe tearing during vaginal delivery increased from 2% to 6%. Although the programme was careful to state that this was “very rare”, in practice this translates into about 30,000 women a year. This huge increase in the rate, an obstetrician told the programme, was down to three main factors: the older age at which women have their first baby; an increase in the size of babies being born; and women themselves being bigger and heavier. But this isn’t necessarily the full explanation: the increase may simply be down to better recognition of tears as a result of the implementation of standard classification.

The programme also read out text messages from viewers. What was sad was the clear variability in treatment available. Although some women said their injuries had healed, others said they had been fobbed off when they complained about their perineal injuries, or that the injuries had persisted over months and years. One of those interviewed on the programme was effectively told that it was all in her head.

The good news is that the professionals are now taking this seriously: the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) have developed an intervention package to reduce tearing in childbirth. The package is really just a simple change to the recommended way in which midwives deliver the baby, which has been shown to reduce tearing. It is being piloted in a number of hospitals and will eventually be rolled out throughout England.

Nonetheless, it’s shocking that in this day and age that a problem affecting so many women isn’t talked about or even taken particularly seriously. It was clear from the programme that many doctors aren’t adequately trained to deal with perineal tears. That – as well as better care during delivery – needs to change.