Care Gaps Common After Anal Sphincter Injuries From Childbirth

Mary Chris Jaklevic

June 15, 2022

Postpartum complications may go unrecognized in women who incur anal sphincter injuries during childbirth, a review of electronic medical records at one academic health system suggests.

In the first 3 months after delivery, few patients with an obstetric anal sphincter injury (OASI) had documented pelvic floor problems, compared with higher rates documented in medical literature, the researchers found.

"Lack of identified pelvic floor dysfunction in this population differs from the incidence in previously published data and may reflect lack of identification by obstetric providers," the researchers reported. The findings "highlight a gap in healthcare that, when addressed, could significantly improve postpartum quality of life," they added.

The findings are scheduled to be presented June 18 at the American Urogynecologic Society and International Urogynecological Association 2022 Scientific Meeting in Austin, Texas.

Anal sphincter injuries occur in about 4.4% of vaginal deliveries and are the most common cause of anal incontinence in women of reproductive age.

For the new study, researchers reviewed records of 287 women who underwent a vaginal birth that resulted in an anal sphincter injury at five Ohio hospitals affiliated with Cleveland Clinic from 2013 to 2015.

Of those who met eligibility criteria, 209 (72.8%) were white, 262 (91.3%) were non-Hispanic, and 249 (86.8%) were aged 20 to 34 years. Most had an epidural (92%), did not require a blood transfusion (97.9%), did not develop a vaginal hematoma (98.9%), and did not have their injury repaired in an operating room (97.2%), the researchers reported.

Among pelvic floor disorders, urinary incontinence was not reported in 96% of patients, fecal incontinence was not reported in 97.1%, and pelvic organ prolapse was not reported in 99.3%. Most had no recorded complications from their lacerations (87.8%) or postpartum depression (92%), the researchers found.

However, a 2015 study found that 12 weeks after delivery, women with OASIs commonly reported symptoms of incontinence, with 26% reporting urinary stress incontinence, 21.4% urinary urgency incontinence, 59% anal incontinence, and 15% fecal incontinence.

Depression was also seldom identified despite higher risk of mood disorders among women with OASI, the researchers found.

The team also examined interpregnancy intervals, defined as the time between a woman's first vaginal delivery and conception of a subsequent pregnancy. Of 178 women for whom data were available, the median interval was 26.4 months (95% CI, 23.7 -  29.9), similar to the median for births nationally.

Dr Alexandra Nutaitis

Lead researcher Alexandra Nutaitis, DO, a resident in obstetrics and gynecology at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, told Medscape Medical News that it's unclear whether physicians did not inquire about symptoms or didn't record them. She noted that anal sphincter injuries are a "stigmatized topic."

Not Asked, Not Told

Carolyn Swenson, MD, an associate professor in urogynecology at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, said physicians in the study may have relied on patients to bring up their symptoms rather than using questionnaires to screen for problems.

Dr Carolyn Swenson

"What we know is that if you don't ask women about pelvic floor disorders, they often don't tell you that they are experiencing symptoms," said Swenson, who was not involved in the new research.

Swenson called for validated questionnaires to assess pelvic floor symptoms in postpartum patients.

Regarding interpregnancy intervals, Nutaitis said she would be surprised if women who experienced an OASI didn't delay having another child longer than women who did not undergo that physical and psychological trauma — but other factors such as societal pressures may override any reluctance to proceed with another pregnancy.

Swenson said it's possible that a subgroup of women who have severe complications, such as those with a fourth-degree tear, might put off having another child. However, more research is needed to find out, she said.

Nutaitis and Swenson have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Urogynecologic Society and International Urogynecological Association 2022 Scientific Meeting: Abstract #246. To be presented June 18, 2022.

Mary Chris Jaklevic is a healthcare journalist in the Midwest.

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