Premature rupture of membranes (PROM) is an event that occurs during pregnancy when the sac containing the developing baby (fetus) and the amniotic fluid bursts or develops a hole prior to the start of labor.
During pregnancy, the unborn baby (fetus) is surrounded and cushioned by a liquid called amniotic fluid. This fluid, along with the fetus and the placenta, is enclosed within a sac called the amniotic membrane. The amniotic fluid is important for several reasons. It cushions and protects the fetus, allowing the fetus to move freely. The amniotic fluid also allows the umbilical cord to float, preventing it from being compressed and cutting off the fetus' supply of oxygen and nutrients. The amniotic membrane contains the amniotic fluid and protects the fetal environment from the outside world. This barrier protects the fetus from organisms (like bacteria or viruses) that could travel up the vagina and potentially cause infection.
Although the fetus is almost always mature between 36-40 weeks and can be born without complication, a normal pregnancy lasts an average of 40 weeks. At the end of 40 weeks, the pregnancy is referred to as being "term." At term, labor usually begins. During labor, the muscles of the uterus contract repeatedly. This allows the cervix to begin to grow thinner (called effacement) and more open (dilatation). Eventually, the cervix will become completely effaced and dilated. In the most common sequence of events (about 90% of all deliveries), the amniotic membrane breaks (ruptures) around this time. The baby then leaves the uterus and enters the birth canal. Ultimately, the baby will be delivered out of the mother's vagina. In the 30 minutes after the birth of the baby, the placenta should separate from the wall of the uterus and be delivered out of the vagina.
Sometimes the membranes burst before the start of labor, and this is called premature rupture of membranes (PROM). There are two types of PROM. One occurs at a point in pregnancy before normal labor and delivery should take place. This is called preterm PROM. The other type of PROM occurs between 36-40 weeks of pregnancy.
PROM occurs in about 10% of all pregnancies. Only about 20% of these cases are preterm PROM. Preterm PROM is responsible for about 34% of all premature births.
Causes & symptoms
The causes of PROM have not been clearly identified. Some risk factors include smoking, multiple pregnancies (twins, triplets, etc.), and excess amniotic fluid (polyhydramnios). Certain procedures carry an increased risk of PROM, including amniocentesis (a diagnostic test involving extraction and examination of amniotic fluid) and cervical cerclage (a procedure in which the uterus is sewn shut to avoid premature labor). A condition called placental abruption is also associated with PROM, although it is not known which condition occurs first. In some cases of preterm PROM, it is believed that bacterial infection of the amniotic membrane causes it to weaken and then break. However, most cases of PROM and infection occur in the opposite order, with PROM occurring first followed by an infection.
The main symptom of PROM is fluid leaking from the vagina. It may be a sudden, large gush of fluid, or it may be a slow, constant trickle of fluid. The complications that may follow PROM include premature labor and delivery of the fetus, infections of the mother and/or the fetus, and compression of the umbilical cord (leading to oxygen deprivation in the fetus).
Labor almost always follows PROM, although the delay between PROM and the onset of labor varies. When PROM occurs at term, labor almost always begins within 24 hours. Earlier in pregnancy, labor can be delayed up to a week or more after PROM. The chance of infection increases as the time between PROM and labor increases. While this may cause doctors to encourage labor in the patient who has reached term, the risk of complications in a premature infant may cause doctors to try delaying labor and delivery in the case of preterm PROM.
The types of infections that can complicate PROM include amnionitis and endometritis. Amnionitis is an infection of the amniotic membrane. Endometritis is an infection of the innermost lining of the uterus. Amnionitis occurs in 0.5-1% of all pregnancies. In the case of PROM at term, amnionitis complicates about 3-15% of pregnancies. About 15-23% of all cases of preterm PROM will be complicated by amnionitis. The presence of amnionitis puts the fetus at great risk of developing an overwhelming infection (sepsis) circulating throughout its bloodstream. Preterm babies are the most susceptible to this life-threatening infection. One type of bacteria responsible for overwhelming infections in newborn babies is called group B streptococci.
Depending on the amount of amniotic fluid leaking from the vagina, diagnosing PROM may be easy. Some doctors note that amniotic fluid has a very characteristic musty smell. A pelvic exam using a sterile medical instrument (speculum) may reveal a trickle of amniotic fluid leaving the cervix, or a pool of amniotic fluid collected behind the cervix. One of two easy tests can be performed to confirm that the liquid is amniotic fluid. A drop of the fluid can be placed on nitrazine paper. Nitrazine paper is made so that it turns from yellowish green to dark blue when it comes in contact with amniotic fluid. Another test involves smearing a little of the fluid on a slide, allowing it to dry, and then viewing it under a microscope. When viewed under the microscope, dried amniotic fluid will be easy to identify because it will look "feathery" like a fern.
Once PROM has been diagnosed, efforts are made to accurately determine the age of the fetus and the maturity of its lungs. Premature babies are at great risk if they have immature lungs. These evaluations can be made using amniocentesis and ultrasound measurements of the fetus' size. Amniocentesis also allows the practitioner to check for infection. Other indications of infection include a fever in the mother, increased heart rate of the mother and/or the fetus, high white blood cell count in the mother, foul smelling or pus-filled discharge from the vagina, and a tender uterus.
Treatment of PROM depends on the stage of the patient's pregnancy. In PROM occurring at term, the mother and baby will be watched closely for the first 24 hours to see if labor will begin naturally. If no labor begins after 24 hours, most doctors will use medications to start labor. This is called inducing labor. Labor is induced to avoid a prolonged gap between PROM and delivery because of the increased risk of infection.
Preterm PROM presents more difficult treatment decisions. The younger the fetus, the more likely it may die or suffer serious permanent damage if delivered prematurely. Yet the risk of infection to the mother and/or the fetus increases as the length of time from PROM to delivery increases. Depending on the age of the fetus and signs of infection, the doctor must decide either to try to prevent labor and delivery until the fetus is more mature, or to induce labor and prepare to treat the complications of prematurity. However, the baby will need to be delivered to avoid serious risks to both it and the mother if infection is present, regardless of the risks of prematurity.
A variety of medications may be used in PROM:
- Medication to induce labor (oxytocin) may be used, either in the case of PROM occurring at term or in the case of preterm PROM and infection.
- Tocolytics may be given to halt or prevent the start of labor. These may be used in the case of preterm PROM, when there are no signs of infection. Delaying the start of labor may give the fetus time to develop more mature lungs.
- Steroids may be used to help the fetus' lungs mature early. Steroids may be given in preterm PROM if the fetus must be delivered early because of infection or labor that cannot be stopped.
- Antibiotics can be given to fight infections. Research is being done to determine whether antibiotics should be given prior to any symptoms of infection to avoid the development of infection.
The prognosis in PROM varies. It depends in large part on the maturity of the fetus and the development of infection.
The only controllable factor associated with PROM is smoking. Cigarette smoking should always be discontinued during a pregnancy.
- A medical procedure during which a long, thin needle is inserted through the abdominal and uterine walls, and into the amniotic sac. A sample of amniotic fluid is withdrawn through the needle for examination.
- Amniotic fluid
- The fluid within the amniotic sac; the fluid surrounds, cushions, and protects the fetus.
- Amniotic membrane
- The thin tissue that creates the walls of the amniotic sac.
- Cervical cerclage
- A procedure where the cervix is sewn closed; used in cases when the cervix starts to dilate too early in a pregnancy to allow the birth of a healthy baby.
- The organ that provides oxygen and nutrition from the mother to the fetus during pregnancy. The placenta is attached to the wall of the uterus, and leads to the fetus via the umbilical cord.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.