Episiotomies are beginning to look like the Pet Rocks of obstetrics: Nobody really wants one anymore, and fewer and fewer of them are being done. But some experts say that too many of them are still being performed.
The procedure, which involves making an incision in the perineum — the area between the vagina and anus — was introduced to American obstetrics in the 1920s to hasten delivery and prevent uncontrolled tears, which were thought to be more difficult to repair and slower to heal. By the 1980s, episiotomies were performed in more than 60 percent of all vaginal births, more during first births. But the following new research puts the routine use of episiotomy during delivery in question:
- According to a Harvard Medical School study, women who have episiotomies are five times more likely to experience loss of bowel control in the first six months after giving birth than those who do not have episiotomies.
- The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology reported that episiotomies significantly increase perineal injuries in vacuum-extraction deliveries (in which a suction device helps pull the baby out).
- Various other recent studies have concluded that episiotomies cause as much or more pain, injuries and complications postpartum than the spontaneous perineal tears they were supposed to eradicate.
“Not only does episiotomy not decrease injury, but it actually increases the number of tears that extend into the rectum,” says Lauren Streicher, M.D., an obstetrician-gynecologist in Chicago who performs episiotomies in only about 20 percent of her deliveries of first babies and rarely in subsequent births. “It’s like tearing a perforated paper: If you put a little more pressure on it, it’s going to keep going,” she says. “Then you have more blood loss, delayed healing and more pain down the road.” Occasionally, such tears result in a hole between the vagina and rectum that must be repaired surgically.
There’s no predicting
The fact that episiotomies still are performed in at least 30 percent of vaginal deliveries nationwide troubles some critics. But many doctors say that eliminating the procedure entirely is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. “There’s a movement out there that says episiotomy is always bad, but that is absolutely untrue,” says Streicher. “But the opposite — that episiotomy is always better — is equally untrue. What really is most appropriate is selective episiotomy.” (See “When Is Snipping Smart?” below.)
Until the baby’s head crowns in labor, neither a woman nor her doctor can predict whether she’ll need an episiotomy. But there is one factor the mother can control: her choice of doctor or midwife. “Make sure that whoever is delivering your baby doesn’t routinely do episiotomies,” Streicher suggests. Ask what percentage of his or her deliveries involve the procedure; the figure should fall at or below the 30 percent national average.