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Cervical Insufficiency

(Cervical Incompetence)


Antonette T. Dulay

, MD, Main Line Health System

Last full review/revision Oct 2020| Content last modified Oct 2020
Topic Resources

Cervical insufficiency is painless opening of the cervix that results in delivery of the baby during the 2nd trimester of pregnancy.

  • Connective tissue disorders that are present at birth and injuries can make tissues of the cervix weak.

  • When the cervix is weak, the baby may be delivered too early.

  • Cervical insufficiency is identified only after a woman becomes pregnant.

  • To prevent early delivery, doctors may stitch the cervix closed (cerclage).

Pregnancy complications, such as cervical insufficiency, 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 cervix (the lower part of the uterus) dilates only when labor starts, in response to contractions of the uterus. However, in some women, tissues of the cervix are weak. As a result, the cervix may open (dilate) long before the baby is due, and the baby may be delivered too early.

Locating the Cervix

Locating the Cervix

If a woman has cervical insufficiency, she is likely to have it in future pregnancies.

Causes of Cervical Insufficiency

What causes the cervix to be weak is not well-understood. Usually, no specific cause can be identified.

Conditions that increase the risk of having a weak cervix (risk factors) include

Most women with cervical insufficiency do not have any of the above conditions.

Symptoms of Cervical Insufficiency

Many women have no symptoms until the baby is delivered early. Other women have symptoms earlier. These symptoms may include pressure in the vagina, vaginal bleeding or spotting, vague pain in the abdomen or lower back, and a vaginal discharge.

Diagnosis of Cervical Insufficiency

  • Ultrasonography

Cervical insufficiency is usually not identified until a woman delivers a baby too soon.

Doctors suspect cervical insufficiency when a woman has risk factors for a weak cervix, such as previous miscarriages during the 2nd trimester.

Doctors may also suspect cervical insufficiency during a routine examination during pregnancy when they see that the cervix has dilated too soon.

If cervical insufficiency is suspected, ultrasonography using a handheld device inserted inside the vagina (called transvaginal ultrasonography) is done. Findings during ultrasonography may suggest cervical insufficiency. For example, if ultrasonography shows that a woman has a short cervix, particularly a woman who is at risk of cervical insufficiency, doctors may closely watch for signs of premature labor.

Treatment of Cervical Insufficiency

  • Stitching around or through the cervix to keep it from opening too soon

Doctors can place stitches around or through the cervix to keep it from opening too soon. Such procedures are called cervical cerclage.

Cerclage appears to prevent preterm delivery in women who have had two more miscarriages during the 2nd-trimester. In such women and other women who have a high risk of cervical insufficiency, cerclage is done during the 1st trimester. Cerclage may also be done before 24 weeks (by the end of the 2nd trimester) if doctors do not know what happened in previous pregnancies but suspect problems in a woman who has a short cervix.

For other women, doctors try to use cerclage only when women have all of the following conditions:

  • Risk factors that strongly suggest cervical insufficiency

  • A short cervix, detected by ultrasonography before 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy (the 1st trimester or early part of the 2nd trimester)

  • Previous preterm deliveries

Limiting cerclage to these women does not appear to increase the risk of preterm delivery and reduces the number of cerclages currently being done by two thirds.

If preterm labor is suspected after 22 to 23 weeks of pregnancy, doctors may prescribe corticosteroids (to help the fetus's lungs mature) and modified bed rest (modified activity). Modified bed rest means that women should stay off of their feet most of the day.

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