Myth: Risk of uterine rupture doesn’t change much after a cesarean
1/18/12 – The difference in uterine rupture (UR) rates between unscarred and scarred uteri is significant: 1 in 14,286 in an unscarred uterus and 1 in 156 in a scarred uterus. Another way to express this is: 0.7 in 10,000 (0.007%) in an unscarred uterus and 64 in 10,000 (0.64%) in a scarred uterus. This 91 times greater risk does not mean that the risk of UR is so large in a scarred mom, it’s that it’s so very, very small in an unscarred mom.
I came across a couple different bits of (mis)information over the past day that have really concerned me. In both situations, people, one of whom is a certified professional midwife (CPM), give false information regarding how a cesarean affects one’s risk of uterine rupture in future pregnancies.
First, a women with a prior cesarean asks for uterine rupture rates after a cesarean, “preferably one with stats” on Facebook. One woman gives this reply:
… almost all cases the risk of rupture is less than one percent, even after multiple sections, or special scars such as an inverted T. The risk is roughly double what it is for an unscarred uterus, but considering the tiny numbers it doesn’t really make a difference, especially since the vast majority of ruptures are not catastrophic in nature, something that is not differentiated in study results.
(There are several things that are false in this statement, but I’ll save those for another post.) Then later in the day, I came across this comment from a CPM’s website:
Will you do a vaginal birth after cesarean?
Yes. Studies have shown that there isn’t much of a difference in uterine rupture rates in someone that has had a previous cesarean and someone who has never had one. A lot of my clients are VBAC’s or attempted VBAC’s. I am completely comfortable with this.
Comparing the risk of uterine rupture: Prior cesarean vs. no prior cesarean
I started looking around and quickly found Uterine rupture in the Netherlands: a nationwide population-based cohort study (Zwart, 2009) which contains the data I needed to compare the rates of rupture in unscarred vs. scarred uteri. You can read the study in its entirety here.
This study included 358,874 total deliveries, making it “the largest prospective report of uterine rupture in women without a previous cesarean in a Western country.” It also differentiates between uterine rupture and dehiscence which is really important because we want to measure the rate of complete rupture. (Remember how the lady from Facebook made the statement, ” the vast majority of ruptures are not catastrophic in nature, something that is not differentiated in study results.” That portion of her statement was also false.)
Zwart (2009) looked at 25,989 deliveries after a cesarean and found 183 ruptures giving us a 0.64% uterine rupture rate or 64 per 10,000 deliveries. 72% of those ruptures occurred in spontaneous labors. Of the 183 ruptures, 7.7% resulted in infant deaths representing 14 babies dying. This gives us a rate of infant mortality due to uterine rupture after a cesarean of 0.05% or 5 in 10,000 deliveries.
Zwart also looked at 332,885 deliveries with no prior cesarean resulting in 25 ruptures giving us a 0.007% uterine rupture rate or .7 per 10,000 deliveries. 56% of ruptures occurred in spontaneous labors. Of the 25 ruptures, 24% resulted in infant deaths representing 6 babies dying. This gives us a rate of infant mortality due to uterine rupture in an unscarred uterus of 0.0018% or 0.18 in 10,000 deliveries.
This study found that the risk of uterine rupture is 91 times greater in a woman with a prior cesarean vs. a woman without a prior cesarean. Not double, not similar, but 91 times greater.
It is important to note that, “severe maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality were clearly more often observed among women with an unscarred uterine rupture as compared to uterine scar rupture.” Meaning, if an unscarred mom ruptures, her baby is more likely to die than a scarred mom. We see this when we compare the 24% of unscarred ruptures that resulted in an infant death vs. the 7.7% of scarred ruptures that resulted in an infant death which represents a 3 fold greater risk.
However, due to the fact that uterine rupture occurs more frequently in a scarred uterus, the risk of infant mortality due to uterine rupture after a previous cesarean was 27.8 times greater than the risk of infant mortality after a rupture in an unscarred uterus.
In other words, while ruptures in unscarred uteri are more deadly to infants, more infants die due to ruptures in scarred uteri because they occur more frequently.
OBs are often vilified (rightfully so) for giving women inflated rates of uterine rupture and I’ve documented several examples here: Another VBAC Consult Misinforms, Scare tactics vs. informed consent, Hospital VBAC turned CS due to constant scare tactics, and A father says, Why invite the risk of VBAC?.
As a result, women seek out midwives thinking that they will be a source of accurate information and judicious support. But what happens when your midwife tells you that your risk of uterine rupture has not increased as a result of your prior cesarean section? If you have done your homework, hopefully you find another midwife fast. I would really question the skills and knowledge of a midwife who is so unknowledgeable on the risks of VBAC and yet attends VBAC births in an out-of-hospital setting.
But suppose your haven’t done your homework, you trust your midwife, and you move forward with your plan to have a VBAC at home based on the incorrect statistics she supplies. I can’t begin to imagine the rage I would feel if I decided to have a home VBAC based on false information provided by my care provider, and then the unimaginable happened, and I ruptured, and then I learned the truth: that my risk of uterine rupture increased 91 times as a result of my prior cesarean. I would be beyond angry. I would feel so betrayed.
It’s unfortunate when a woman chooses a mode of delivery based on false information. Whether it’s a woman deciding to have a repeat cesarean due to the exaggerated risk of uterine rupture provided by her OB or a woman deciding to have a (home) VBAC due to her midwife playing down and underestimating the risk of uterine rupture. It is just as bad to minimize the risk of uterine rupture as it is to inflate the risk.
While the risk of rupture in a spontaneous labor after one prior low transverse cesarean is comparable to other obstetrical emergencies, it is important for women weighting their post-cesarean birth options to know that their risk increased substantially due to their prior cesarean. It is important for them to understand the risks and benefits of VBAC vs. repeat cesarean. It is important for them to have access to accurate information and be able to differentiate between a midwife’s/blogger’s/doula’s/birth advocate’s/person on Facebook’s hopeful opinion vs. documented statistics.
I implore those who interact with, and have impact on, women weighing their birth options: do not pass along information, no matter how great it sounds, if you don’t have a well-designed scientific study supporting it. If you hear a statistic you would love to use and share, just ask the person who gave you this information,”What is the source?” and use the citation anytime you quote the statistic. But if the person doesn’t have a well-designed scientific study, be wary and don’t use the stat. This way, we can reduce the rumor and increase the amount of good information on the Internet. I know, a lofty goal.
Read more birth myths debunked including Lightning strikes, shark bites, and uterine rupture and Myth: Unscarred mom induced (with Pit) as likely as VBAC mom to rupture.
Zwart, J. J., Richters, J. M., Ory, F., de Vries, J., Bloemenkamp, K., & van Roosmalen, J. (2009, July). Uterine rupture in the Netherlands: a nationwide population-based cohort study. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 116(8), pp. 1069-1080. Retrieved January 15, 2012, from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1471-0528.2009.02136.x/full
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Jen Kamel is the founder of VBAC Facts, an educational, training and consulting firm. As a nationally recognized VBAC strategist and consumer advocate, she has been invited to present Grand Rounds at a hospital, served as an expert witness in a legal proceeding, and has traveled the country educating hundreds of professionals and highly motivated parents. Even more have accessed her trainings online. She speaks at national conferences and has worked as a legislative consultant in various states focusing on midwifery legislation and regulations. She has testified multiple times in front of the California Medical Board and legislative committees on the importance of VBAC access and is the Secretary for the California Association of Midwives and the California Association of Licensed Midwives. Her favorite flavor of ice cream is peanut butter chocolate. And mint chip. And coffee.