Social media personality, entrepreneur, and model Chrissy Teigen recently penned a deeply personal essay on the Medium forum about the loss of her pregnancy. Besides describing her devastation and grief, Teigen revealed the cause of her loss: placental abruption. Although not uncommon – occurring in one percent of pregnancies – it isn’t often in the news. Teigen’s post has shined a spotlight on the condition.

What Is Placental Abruption?

During pregnancy, the placenta connects the fetus to the mother’s uterus, supplying nutrients, blood, and oxygen and removing waste. It typically separates from the uterus in the last stage of labor. 

As the baby is born, contractions help push the child into the birth canal and out of the body. But with placental abruption, the placenta separates from the uterus’s inner wall before labor. Most of the time, only a part of the placenta detaches, often with little consequence. However, sometimes, it pulls away completely and causes serious problems for both the fetus and the mother.

In a partial separation, the fetus receives less oxygen and fewer nutrients, which may cause it to grow more slowly than it should. With a complete separation, the fetus gets no nutrition or oxygen; it will die if it is not delivered immediately. 

Placental abruption occurs in one in ten premature births. Compared to full-term births, premature babies (those born before 37 weeks of pregnancy) can experience increased health risks during the first weeks of life, lasting disabilities, and even death. If a complete abruption happens late in the pregnancy, doctors may be able to save the fetus’s life; this is usually impossible if a total abruption occurs earlier.

Abruptions can cause significant blood loss to the mother and endanger her health. Teigen wrote about having light, then heavy, then extremely heavy bleeding while she was on bed rest, which was her body’s attempt to stop the progress of the detachment. Unfortunately, like in many other cases, her condition worsened, and the pregnancy could not be saved. Her doctors gave her blood transfusions and took steps to deliver her stillborn son safely.

What Causes a Placental Abruption?

Every pregnancy is different, and all pregnancies involve risks. Several factors contribute to a developing fetus’s health, and many things can go wrong during the growth process. Because of this, no one knows the precise cause of placental abruptions, but certain factors can increase a woman’s risk, including:

  • History of placental abruption in a previous pregnancy. 
  • Long-term (chronic) high blood pressure.
  • Sudden high blood pressure in pregnant women with otherwise normal blood pressure. 
  • Heart disease.
  • Trauma or impact to the abdomen during pregnancy.
  • Infection in the uterus.
  • Smoking.
  • Alcohol or cocaine use.
  • Uterine fibroids.
  • Pregnancies involving twins, triplets, or other multiples.
  • Age (risk increases in older mothers).

Prenatal care providers should discuss these factors with their patients and make appropriate recommendations to mitigate the risks. Careful monitoring and regular communication can help a woman and her doctor promptly recognize and respond to any signs or symptoms.

What Are the Signs of and Treatments for a Placental Abruption?

The most common symptoms are vaginal bleeding and painful contractions or cramps. Women may also experience abdominal or back pain. The amount of bleeding usually corresponds to how much of the placenta has detached. Unfortunately, sometimes blood collects between the placenta and uterine wall and is not expelled from the body. This can hide the threat until it is too late. With a significant detachment, a woman usually has substantial pain and heavy bleeding, and the baby may move more or less than usual. 

If you experience these symptoms during your pregnancy, tell your doctor right away. They will perform a physical exam and possibly an ultrasound and check the fetus’ heart rate and rhythm. If your physician suspects an abruption, they may order bed rest. If the bleeding stops, you may be able to resume normal activities in a few days. For more severe cases, your provider may recommend continuing bed rest. 

If the bleeding continues or worsens, go to the hospital. You might need a blood transfusion, and if your baby is in distress, your doctor may induce labor or perform a cesarean section. Immediate and appropriate emergency care is necessary to give both the mother and her child the best chance for a good outcome. Failure to recognize or take appropriate steps in response to the symptoms of placental abruption may constitute medical malpractice.

If you or your child suffered a birth-related trauma due to improper prenatal care or medical errors during labor and delivery, contact an experienced attorney. Our team of skilled and empathetic lawyers, nurses, and experts will review your treatment and fight to recover what you deserve. 

Photo Credit: Mike Cucinotta, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Matthew Curtis

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Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis is a senior shareholder and member of the Board of Directors at Sommers Schwartz, P.C. For the past 30 years, he has successfully litigated complex personal injury and medical malpractice cases throughout Michigan, and across the United States.