A cesarean section is a surgical procedure in which incisions are made through a woman's abdomen and uterus to deliver her baby.
Cesarean sections, also called c-sections, are performed whenever abnormal conditions complicate labor and vaginal delivery, threatening the life or health of the mother or the baby. The procedure is performed in the United States on nearly one of every four babies delivered -- more than 900,000 babies each year. The procedure is often used in cases where the mother has had a previous c-section. Dystocia, or difficult labor, is the other common cause of c-sections.
Difficult labor is commonly caused by one of the three following conditions: abnormalities in the mother's birth canal; abnormalities in the position of the fetus; abnormalities in the labor, including weak or infrequent contractions.
Another major factor is fetal distress, a condition where the fetus is not getting enough oxygen. Fetal brain damage can result from oxygen deprivation. Fetal distress is often related to abnormalities in the position of the fetus or abnormalities in the birth canal, causing reduced blood flow through the placenta. Other conditions also can make c-section advisable, such as vaginal herpes, hypertension and diabetes in the mother.
There are several ways that obstetricians and other doctors diagnose conditions that may make a c-section necessary. Ultrasound testing reveals the positions of the baby and the placenta and may be used to estimate the baby's size and gestational age. Fetal heart monitors, in use since the 1970s, transmit any signals of fetal distress. Oxygen deprivation may be determined by checking the amniotic fluid for meconium (feces) -- a lack of oxygen causes an unborn baby to defecate. Oxygen deprivation may also be determined by testing the pH of a blood sample taken from the baby's scalp; a pH of 7.25 or higher is normal, between 7.2 and 7.25 is suspicious, and below 7.2 is a sign of trouble.
When a c-section is being considered because labor is not progressing, the mother should first be encouraged to walk around to stimulate labor. Labor may also be stimulated with the drug oxytocin.
When a c-section is being considered because the baby is in a breech position, the doctor may first attempt to reposition the baby; this is called external cephalic version. The doctor may also try a vaginal breech delivery, depending on the size of the mother's pelvis, the size of the baby, and the type of breech position the baby is in. However, a c-section is safer than a vaginal delivery when the baby is 8 pounds or larger, in a breech position with the feet crossed, or in a breech position with the head hyperextended.
A woman should receive regular prenatal care and be able to alert her doctor to the first signs of trouble. Once labor begins, she should be encouraged to move around and to urinate. The doctor should be conservative in diagnosing dystocia (nonprogressive labor) and fetal distress, taking a position of "watchful waiting" before deciding to operate.
The most common reason that a cesarean section is performed (in 35% of all cases, according to the U.S. Public Health Service) is that the woman has had a previous c-section. The "once a cesarean, always a cesarean" rule originated when the classical uterine incision was made vertically; the resulting scar was weak and had a risk of rupturing in subsequent deliveries. Today, the incision is almost always made horizontally across the lower end of the uterus (this is called a "low transverse incision"), resulting in reduced blood loss and a decreased chance of rupture. This kind of incision allows many women to have a vaginal birth after a cesarean (VBAC).
The second most common reason that a c-section is performed (in 30% of all cases) is difficult childbirth due to nonprogressive labor (dystocia). Uterine contractions may be weak or irregular, the cervix may not be dilating, or the mother's pelvic structure may not allow adequate passage for birth. When the baby's head is too large to fit through the pelvis, the condition is called cephalopelvic disproportion (CPD).
Another 12% of c-sections are performed to deliver a baby in a breech presentation: buttocks or feet first. Breech presentation is found in about 3% of all births.
In 9% of all cases, c-sections are performed in response to fetal distress. Fetal distress refers to any situation that threatens the baby, such as the umbilical cord getting wrapped around the baby's neck. This may appear on the fetal heart monitor as an abnormal heart rate or rhythm.
The remaining 14% of c-sections are indicated by other serious factors. One is prolapse of the umbilical cord: the cord is pushed into the vagina ahead of the baby and becomes compressed, cutting off blood flow to the baby. Another is placental abruption: the placenta separates from the uterine wall before the baby is born, cutting off blood flow to the baby. The risk of this is especially high in multiple births (twins, triplets, or more). A third factor is placenta previa: the placenta covers the cervix partially or completely, making vaginal delivery impossible. In some cases requiring c-section, the baby is in a transverse position, lying horizontally across the pelvis, perhaps with a shoulder in the birth canal.
The mother's health may make delivery by c-section the safer choice, especially in cases of maternal diabetes, hypertension, genital herpes, Rh blood incompatibility, and preeclampsia (high blood pressure related to pregnancy).
When a c-section becomes necessary, the mother is prepped for surgery. A catheter is inserted into her bladder and an intravenous (IV) line is inserted into her arm. Leads for monitoring the mother's heart rate, rhythm, and blood pressure are attached. In the operating room, the mother is given anesthesia -- usually a regional anesthetic (epidural or spinal), making her numb from below her breasts to her toes. In some cases, a general anesthetic will be administered. Surgical drapes are placed over the body, except the head; these drapes block the direct view of the procedure.
The abdomen is washed with an anti-bacterial solution and a portion of the pubic hair may be shaved. The first incision opens the abdomen. Infrequently, it will be vertical from just below the navel to the top of the pubic bone, or more commonly, it will be a horizontal incision across and above the pubic bone (informally called a "bikini cut").
The second incision opens the uterus. In most cases a traverse incision is made. This is the favored type because it heals well and makes it possible for a woman to attempt a vaginal delivery in the future. The classical incision is vertical. Because it provides a larger opening than a low transverse incision, it is used in the most critical situations, such as placenta previa. However, the classical incision causes more bleeding, a greater risk of abdominal infection, and a weaker scar, so the low transverse incision is preferred.
Once the uterus is opened, the amniotic sac is ruptured and the baby is delivered. The time from the initial incision to birth is typically five minutes.
Once the umbilical cord is clamped and cut, the newborn is evaluated. The placenta is removed from the mother, and her uterus and abdomen are stitched closed (surgical staples may be used instead in closing the outermost layer of the abdominal incision). From birth through suturing may take 30-40 minutes. Thus the entire surgical procedure may be performed in less than one hour.
A woman who undergoes a c-section requires both the care given to any new mother and the care given to any patient recovering from major surgery. She should be offered pain medication that does not interfere with breastfeeding. She should be encouraged to get out of bed and walk around 8-24 hours after surgery to stimulate circulation (thus avoiding the formation of blood clots) and bowel movement. She should limit climbing stairs to once a day, and avoid lifting anything heavier than the baby. She should nap as often as the baby sleeps, and arrange for help with the housework, meals, and care of other children. She may resume driving after two weeks, although some doctors recommend waiting for six weeks, the typical recovery period from major surgery.
Because a c-section is a surgical procedure, it carries more risk to both the mother and the baby. The maternal death rate is less than 0.02%, but that is four times the maternal death rate associated with vaginal delivery. However, many women have a c-section for serious medical problems. The mother is at risk for increased bleeding (because a c-section may result in twice the blood loss of a vaginal delivery) from the two incisions, the placental attachment site, and possible damage to a uterine artery. Complications occur in less than 10% of cases. The mother may develop infection of either incision, the urinary tract, or the tissue lining the uterus (endometritis). Less commonly, she may receive injury to the surrounding organs, like the bladder and bowel. When a general anesthesia is used, she may experience complications from the anesthesia. Very rarely, she may develop a wound hematoma at the site of either incision or other blood clots leading to pelvic thrombophlebitis (inflammation of the major vein running from the pelvis into the leg) or a pulmonary embolus (a blood clot lodging in the lung).
The after-effects of a c-section vary, depending on the woman's age, physical fitness, and overall health. Following this procedure, a woman commonly experiences gas pains, incision pain, and uterine contractions -- which are also common in vaginal delivery. Her hospital stay may be two to four days. Breastfeeding the baby is encouraged, taking care that it is in a position that keeps the baby from resting on the mother's incision. As the woman heals, she may gradually increase appropriate exercises to regain abdominal tone. Full recovery may be seen in four to six weeks.
The prognosis for a successful vaginal birth after a cesarean (VBAC) may be at least 75%, especially when the c-section involved a low transverse incision in the uterus and there were no complications during or after delivery.
Of the hundreds of thousands of women in the United States who undergo a c-section each year, about 500 die from serious infections, hemorrhaging, or other complications. These deaths may be related to the health conditions that made the operation necessary, and not simply to the operation itself.
Undergoing a c-section may also inflict psychological distress on the mother, beyond hormonal mood swings and postpartum depression ("baby blues"). The woman may feel disappointment and a sense of failure for not experiencing a vaginal delivery. She may feel isolated if the father or birthing coach is not with her in the operating room, or if she is treated by an unfamiliar doctor rather than by her own doctor or midwife. She may feel helpless from a loss of control over labor and delivery with no opportunity to actively participate. To overcome these feelings, the woman must understand why the c-section was necessary. She must accept that she couldn't control the unforeseen events that made the c-section the optimum means of delivery, and recognize that preserving the health and safety of both her and her child was more important than her delivering vaginally. Women who undergo a c-section should be encouraged to share their feelings with others. Hospitals can often recommend support groups for such mothers. Women should also be encouraged to seek professional help if negative emotions persist.
- Breech presentation
- The condition in which the baby enters the birth canal with its buttocks or feet first.
- Cephalopelvic disproportion (CPD)
- The condition in which the baby's head is too large to fit through the mother's pelvis.
- Classical incision
- In a cesarean section, an incision made vertically along the uterus; this kind of incision makes a larger opening but also creates more bleeding, a greater chance of infection, and a weaker scar.
- Failure to progress in labor, either because the cervix will not dilate (expand) further or (after full dilation) the head does not descend through the mother's pelvis.
- Low transverse incision
- Incision made horizontally across the lower end of the uterus; this kind of incision is preferred for less bleeding and stronger healing.
- Placenta previa
- The placenta totally or partially covers the cervix, preventing vaginal delivery.
- Placental abruption
- Separation of the placenta from the uterine wall before the baby is born, cutting off blood flow to the baby.
- Prolapsed cord
- The umbilical cord is pushed into the vagina ahead of the baby and becomes compressed, cutting off blood flow to the baby.
- Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS)
- Difficulty breathing, found in infants with immature lungs.
- Transverse presentation
- The baby is laying sideways across the cervix instead of head first.
- Vaginal birth after cesarean.
For Your Information
- American Academy of Family Physicians. 8880 Ward Parkway, Kansas City, MO 64114. (816) 333-9700. http://www.aafp.org
- Childbirth.Org. Robin Elise Weiss, childbirth educator. Louisville, KY. (502) 493-9352. http://www.childbirth.org
- International Cesarean Awareness Network. 1304 Kingsdale Avenue, Redondo Beach, CA 90278. (310) 542-6400.
- March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation. PO Box 1657, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18703. (800) 367-6630. http://www.modimes.org
- National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. PO Box 2911, Washington DC 20040.
- United States Department of Health and Human Services. 200 Independence Avenue SW, Washington DC 20201. (202) 619-0257. http://www.hhs.gov
- "Cesarean Childbirth." Perspectives: A Mental Health Magazine http://www.cmhc.com/factsfam/cbirth.html
- "Cesarean Factsheet." (July 8, 1997) http://www.childbirth.org/section/CSFact.html
- "The Cesarean Section FAQ." http://www.childbirth.org/section/CSFAQ.html
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.