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Excessive Uterine Bleeding at Delivery

(Postpartum Hemorrhage)


Julie S. Moldenhauer

, MD, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Reviewed/Revised Jan 2024

Excessive bleeding from the uterus refers to loss of more than 2 pints of blood or symptoms of significant blood loss that occur within 24 hours after childbirth.

After the baby is delivered, excessive bleeding from the uterus is a major concern.

Ordinarily, a woman loses about 1 pint of blood during and after vaginal delivery. Blood is lost because some blood vessels are opened when the placenta detaches from the uterus. The contractions of the uterus help close these vessels until the vessels can heal. Typically, cesarean delivery Cesarean Delivery Cesarean delivery is surgical delivery of a baby by incision through a woman’s abdomen and uterus. In the United States, up to 30% of deliveries are cesarean. Doctors use a cesarean delivery... read more Cesarean Delivery results in about twice the blood loss as vaginal delivery, partly because delivery requires an incision in the uterus, and a lot of blood is pumped to the uterus during pregnancy.

Blood loss is considered excessive if one of the following occurs within 24 hours of delivery:

  • More than 2 pints of blood are lost.

  • A woman has symptoms of significant blood loss, such as low blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, dizziness, light-headedness, fatigue, and weakness.

Excessive blood loss usually occurs soon after delivery but may occur as late as 1 month afterward.

Causes of Postpartum Hemorrhage

The most common cause of excessive bleeding at delivery is

  • A uterus that does not start contracting after delivery but instead remains loose and stretched out (a condition called uterine atony)

When the uterus does not start contracting after delivery, the blood vessels that were opened when the placenta detached continue to bleed.

Contractions may be impaired when

Excessive bleeding can also result when

Excessive bleeding after one delivery may increase the risk of excessive bleeding after subsequent deliveries.

Diagnosis of Postpartum Hemorrhage

  • A doctor's estimate of blood loss

  • Monitoring vital signs

The diagnosis of postpartum hemorrhage is based on close observation of the amount of bleeding.

Monitoring a woman's vital signs, such as blood pressure and heart rate, can help doctors determine whether blood loss is excessive. A drop in blood pressure or a rapid heart rate may indicate excessive bleeding.

Treatment of Postpartum Hemorrhage

  • Massage of the uterus

  • Medications to help the uterus contract

  • Fluids given by vein (intravenously)

  • Sometimes a blood transfusion

  • Removal of any remaining fragments of the placenta

  • Sometimes a procedure to compress the arteries to the uterus

If excessive bleeding occurs, a woman's uterus is massaged by pressing on her abdomen, and she is given oxytocin continuously through an intravenous line. These measures help the uterus contract. A woman is also given fluids intravenously to help restore the amount of fluid in the bloodstream. If bleeding continues, another medication that helps the uterus contract is also given. These medications can be injected into a muscle, placed as a tablet in the rectum, or, for a woman undergoing cesarean delivery, injected into the uterus.

A woman may need a blood transfusion.

Doctors look for the cause of excessive bleeding. The uterus may be examined to see whether any fragments of the placenta remain. Any fragments that remain in the uterus are removed by hand. Rarely, dilation and curettage Dilation and Curettage Sometimes doctors recommend screening tests, which are tests that are done to look for disorders in people who have no symptoms. If women have symptoms related to the reproductive system (gynecologic... read more Dilation and Curettage is needed to remove these fragments. In this procedure, a small, sharp instrument (curet) is passed through the cervix (which is usually still open from the delivery). The curet is used to remove the retained fragments. This procedure requires an anesthetic. The cervix and vagina are examined for tears.

If the uterus cannot be stimulated to contract and bleeding continues, the arteries supplying blood to the uterus may have to be compressed to stop blood flow. Procedures that may be used include the following:

  • A balloon may be inserted into the uterus and inflated.

  • Packing may be inserted into the uterus.

  • A doctor may place stitches (sutures) around the bottom of the uterus—a procedure that requires abdominal surgery.

  • A device that applies gentle suction to the uterus and thus helps the uterus contract may be placed in the uterus.

The procedures usually do not cause infertility, abnormalities in menstruation, or other lasting problems.

Sometimes the arteries supplying blood to the uterus must be blocked surgically or by inserting material through catheters into the arteries.

Removal of the uterus (hysterectomy) is rarely necessary to stop the bleeding.

Prevention of Postpartum Hemorrhage

Before a woman goes into labor, doctors take steps to prevent or prepare for excessive bleeding after delivery. For example, they determine whether the woman has any conditions that increase the risk of bleeding (such as too much amniotic fluid or a bleeding disorder). These conditions are treated if possible.

If a woman has an unusual blood type, blood of that type is on hand in case she needs a blood transfusion.

Delivery should be slow and as gentle as possible. Doctors usually give a woman oxytocin through an intravenous line or inject it into a muscle. Oxytocin helps the uterus contract and helps reduce blood loss.

After delivery of the placenta, a woman is monitored for at least 1 hour to make sure that the uterus has contracted and to assess bleeding.

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