Women may have painless, sometimes profuse bleeding late in the pregnancy.
Ultrasonography can usually confirm the diagnosis.
Modified activity may be all that is needed, but if bleeding is severe and continues or if the fetus or woman develop problems, cesarean delivery is done.
Pregnancy complications, such as placenta previa, are problems that occur only during pregnancy. They may affect the woman, the fetus, or both and may occur at different times during the pregnancy. However, most pregnancy complications can be effectively treated.
Normally, the placenta is located in the upper part of the uterus. In placenta previa, the placenta is located in the lower part. It covers the opening of the cervix—the entrance to the birth canal. Sometimes the placenta is located near the opening of the cervix, not over it (called a low-lying placenta).
Placenta previa occurs in about 1 of 800 deliveries. During the 2nd trimester, as many as 2% of pregnant women have placenta previa. Placenta previa may be visible on ultrasonography. However, it resolves on its own in more than 90% of women before they deliver. If it does not resolve, the placenta may detach from the uterus, depriving the baby of its blood supply. Passage of the baby through the birth canal can also tear the placenta, causing severe bleeding.
Risk factors (conditions that increase the risk of a disorder) for placenta previa include the following:
Having had more than one pregnancy
Having had a cesarean delivery
Having a structural abnormality of the uterus, such as fibroids Fibroids A fibroid is a noncancerous tumor composed of muscle and fibrous tissue. It is located in the uterus. Fibroids can cause pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding, constipation, repeated miscarriages... read more
Having had a procedure that involves the uterus such as removal of fibroids from the uterus (myomectomy Surgery for fibroids A fibroid is a noncancerous tumor composed of muscle and fibrous tissue. It is located in the uterus. Fibroids can cause pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding, constipation, repeated miscarriages... read more ) or dilation and curettage Dilation and Curettage Sometimes doctors recommend screening tests, which are tests that are done to look for disorders in people who have no symptoms. If women have symptoms related to the reproductive system (gynecologic... read more (D and C) done several times
Symptoms of Placenta Previa
Placenta previa can cause painless bleeding from the vagina that suddenly starts after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The blood may be bright red. Bleeding may become profuse, endangering the life of the woman and the fetus. Some women also have contractions.
Placenta previa can cause problems for the fetus, such as the following:
The fetus may not grow as much as expected (intrauterine growth restriction Small-for-Gestational-Age (SGA) Newborns A newborn who weighs less than 90% of newborns of the same gestational age at birth (below the 10th percentile) is considered small for gestational age. Newborns may be small because their parents... read more ).
The membranes around the fetus may rupture too soon (premature rupture of the membranes Prelabor Rupture of the Membranes (PROM) Prelabor rupture of the membranes is the leaking of amniotic fluid from around the fetus at any time before labor starts. After the membranes rupture, labor often soon follows. If labor does... read more ).
Blood vessels connecting the umbilical cord and placenta may block the fetus's exit through the opening of the cervix (vasa previa Vasa Previa In vasa previa, membranes that contain blood vessels connecting the umbilical cord and placenta lie across or near the opening of the cervix—the entrance to the birth canal. Vasa previa may... read more ).
If women have had a cesarean delivery, placenta previa increases the risk that the placenta will be too firmly attached to the uterus (placenta accreta Placenta Accreta Placenta accreta is a placenta with an abnormally firm attachment to the uterus. Having had both a cesarean delivery and placenta previa in a previous pregnancy greatly increases the risk of... read more ). Placenta accreta belongs to a group of disorders called the placenta accreta spectrum. These disorders differ in how firmly the placenta is attached to the uterus.
Diagnosis of Placenta Previa
Doctors suspect placenta previa in pregnant women with vaginal bleeding that starts after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Ultrasonography helps doctors identify placenta previa and distinguish it from a placenta that has detached too early (placental abruption Placental Abruption Placental abruption is the premature detachment of the placenta from the wall of the uterus, usually after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Women may have abdominal pain and tenderness and vaginal bleeding... read more ).
If women have vaginal bleeding and placenta previa is thought to be the cause, doctors monitor the fetus's heart rate Fetal monitoring Labor is a series of rhythmic, progressive contractions of the uterus that gradually move the fetus through the lower part of the uterus (cervix) and birth canal (vagina) to the outside world... read more to determine whether the fetus is having problems, such as not getting enough oxygen.
Problems With the Placenta
Normally, the placenta is located in the upper part of the uterus, firmly attached to the uterine wall until after delivery of the baby. The placenta carries oxygen and nutrients from the mother to the fetus.
In placental abruption (abruptio placentae), the placenta detaches from the uterine wall prematurely, causing the uterus to bleed and reducing the fetus’s supply of oxygen and nutrients. Women who have this complication are hospitalized, and the baby may be delivered early.
In placenta previa, the placenta is located over the cervix, in the lower part of the uterus. Placenta previa may cause painless bleeding that suddenly begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bleeding may become profuse. The baby is usually delivered by cesarean.
Treatment of Placenta Previa
Hospitalization and modified activity
Delivery at 36 to 37 weeks if bleeding has stopped
Immediate cesarean delivery if the woman or fetus is having problems
When bleeding is minor and occurs before about 36 weeks of pregnancy, doctors typically advise that the woman be admitted to the hospital and told to limit her activity until the bleeding stops. Limiting her activity (called modified activity or modified bed rest) means that she should stay off her feet for most of the day. If the bleeding stops, the woman may be allowed to gradually resume light activities. If bleeding does not recur, she is usually sent home, provided that she can return to the hospital easily. Doctors advise against sexual activity, which can trigger bleeding.
If bleeding recurs, the woman is usually readmitted to the hospital and may be kept there until delivery.
Some experts recommend using corticosteroids to help the fetus's lungs mature when early delivery—usually before about 34 weeks of pregnancy—may become necessary.
If the woman is not having contractions and if bleeding has stopped, doctors may deliver the baby at 36 to 37 weeks of pregnancy.
Delivery is usually done immediately when one of the following occur:
Bleeding is profuse or does not stop.
The fetus's heart rate is abnormal, indicating lack of oxygen.
The woman's blood pressure becomes too low.
In women with placenta previa, delivery is cesarean Cesarean Delivery Cesarean delivery is surgical delivery of a baby by incision through a woman’s abdomen and uterus. In the United States, up to 30% of deliveries are cesarean. Doctors use a cesarean delivery... read more , done before labor starts. Vaginal delivery may be possible for women with a low-lying placenta.
Women who bleed profusely may need blood transfusions.
Women with Rh-negative blood are given Rho(D) immune globulin Prevention Rh incompatibility occurs when a pregnant woman has Rh-negative blood and the fetus has Rh-positive blood. Rh incompatibility can result in destruction of the fetus’s red blood cells, sometimes... read more to prevent hemolytic disease of the fetus Hemolytic Disease of the Newborn Hemolytic disease of the newborn is a condition in which red blood cells are broken down or destroyed by the mother's antibodies. Hemolysis is the breakdown of red blood cells. This disorder... read more (erythroblastosis fetalis) This disorder is caused by Rh incompatibility Hemolytic Disease of the Fetus and Newborn Rh incompatibility occurs when a pregnant woman has Rh-negative blood and the fetus has Rh-positive blood. Rh incompatibility can result in destruction of the fetus’s red blood cells, sometimes... read more (when a pregnant woman has Rh-negative blood and the fetus has Rh-positive blood).