What is an Episiotomy?
To attempt objectivity in definition, let’s start with the dictionary: episiotomy is “an incision into the perineum and vagina to allow sufficient clearance for birth.” This means the vagina is cut open to make it bigger, ostensibly to make it easier for the baby to come out. The cut goes in the direction of the anus.
There are two types of episiotomy: midline, in which the cut is made in a straight line toward the anus, and mediolateral, in which the cut is made at an angle toward one side of the anus.
In a review of the procedure, Cleary-Goldman and Robinson note that technically episiotomy refers to the cutting of the external genitalia, and perineotomy more accurately describes what is called episiotomy in American obstetrical practice. If you are not squeamish, you can do a search on Google Images for episiotomy and see what they look like in photos rather than drawings. I mean it about the not squeamish part.
A Short History
There is documentation of episiotomy being performed in the 1700s in particularly difficult and prolonged births. There is also documentation in this era of using support and lubricants (such as hog lard) to prevent tearing of the perineum during birth. Accounts in the preceding links differ, but episiotomies appear to have been introduced in the United States in the mid 1800s. The combination of anesthesia, hospital birth, and routine use of forceps served to popularize episiotomies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1918, advocating for episiotomy in a journal article, obstetrician Ralph Pomeroy wrote, “Why should we consider it other than reckless to allow the child’s head to be used as a battering ram?” Obstetrician Joseph B. DeLee published a subsequent article on episiotomy in 1920 and claimed that episiotomy “preserves the integrity of the pelvic floor, forestalls uterine prolapse, rupture of the vaginal-vesico septum, and the long train of sequalae.” Doctors also preferred the ease of sewing the straight incision of an episiotomy rather than a tear.
The speculations of Pomeroy and DeLee were absorbed as truth, and episiotomy became routine procedure for physician-attended births, even though there was no actual evidence to support episiotomy’s effectiveness in preserving women’s pelvic function. The procedure was not widely questioned or tested by anyone in mainstream obstetrics until the 1990s.
What Happens after Episiotomy?
Episiotomy has sometimes been referred to dismissively as a “little snip,” but like mackerel and pudding, the words vagina and snip should exist far, far away from one another. Episiotomy can have serious health consequences, including
- Tearing past the incision into the rectal tissues and anal sphincter
- Perineal pain [short and long term]
- Perineal hematoma (collection of blood in the perineal tissues)
- Pain during sexual intercourse [short and long term]
Some women recover quickly from episiotomy and do not report lasting problems. Some women even request an episiotomy to shorten second stage labor–after hours of pushing, anything to hasten the birth may seem a relief.
For many women, however, episiotomy (which, after all, is a deep cut into the genitals) is traumatic and has long-term effects. In nearly all cases, an episiotomy is not necessary, meaning that these women suffer while accruing no medical benefit.
(See here for a brief explanation of a randomized control trial.)
In 1992, a group of Canadian physicians published the results of a randomized control trial in Current Clinical Trials showing that there was “no evidence that liberal or routine use of episiotomy prevents perineal trauma or pelvic floor relaxation.” In addition, they found that almost all severe perineal trauma occurred among women who had median (midline) episiotomies, and that among women who had already had at least one vaginal birth, those who had episiotomies were much more likely to tear and needed more stitches on average than women who did not have episiotomies.
In 1993, a group of Argentine physicians published the results of a randomized control trial in the Lancet. Their randomized control trial of 2606 women showed that routine episiotomy (rather than “selective” episiotomy) increased risk of severe perineal trauma. Those in the routine group also showed higher rates of ” posterior perineal surgical repair, perineal pain, healing complications, and dehiscence.” The study concluded that “[r]outine episiotomy should be abandoned.”
A 1995 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that “Physicians with favo[rable] views of episiotomy were more likely to use techniques to expedite labour, and their patients were more likely to have perineal trauma and to be less satisfied with the birth experience.” This study also found that the doctors who liked episiotomy had difficulty following study protocols about when to perform the procedure and were more likely to diagnose fetal distress and perform cesareans than their counterparts who did not have favorable views of episiotomy.
Some physicians still try to justify performing episiotomy to prevent tears, but tearing was shown to be preferable to episiotomy in a 2004 Scandinavian randomized control trial: “Avoiding episiotomy at tears presumed to be imminent increases the rate of intact perinea and the rate of only minor perineal trauma, reduces postpartum perineal pain and does not have any adverse effects on maternal or fetal morbidity.”
A 2012 Cochrane Review did not find significant differences between midline and mediolateral episiotomy–both were generally worse than avoiding an episiotomy altogether: “Women [who did not have episiotomies] experienced less severe perineal trauma, less posterior perineal trauma, less suturing and fewer healing complications at seven days (reducing the risks by from 12% to 31%); with no difference in occurrence of pain, urinary incontinence, painful sex or severe vaginal/perineal trauma after birth.”
Current American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidelines note that “routine episiotomy does not prevent pelvic floor damage leading to incontinence” and recommend against routine use of episiotomy. The guidelines note that median (midline) episiotomy is associated with anal sphincter injuries but that mediolateral episiotomy is “associated with difficulty of repair, greater blood loss, and, possibly, more early postpartum discomfort.”
The Royal College of Midwives (RCM, in the United Kingdom) offers the following evidence based reasons for episiotomy:
- Aid the delivery of the presenting part when the perineum is tight and causing poor progress in the second stage of labour
- Allow more space for operative or manipulative deliveries, such as forceps, shoulder dystocia or breech delivery (NICE, 2007; RCOG, 2005)
- Prevent damage of the fetus during a face or breech presentation, or during instrumental delivery
- Shorten the second stage of labour for fetal distress (Sleep, 1995) or maternal medical condition
- Accommodate issues associated with female genital mutilation to the benefit of both mother and baby (Hakim, 2001).
- Episiotomy is contraindicated when there is a high head. In these circumstances, descent will not be assisted.
Note that in the case of shoulder dystocia, the episiotomy is justified only to give the practitioner more room to perform necessary maneuvers. Episiotomy does not, in itself, help with shoulder dystocia. As the obstetrical nurse and midwife who blogs at Birth Sense explains:
Many physicians will openly admit that episiotomy does nothing to help facilitate the delivery of a baby with shoulder dystocia, because it is not a tissue problem, but a bone problem. The shoulder is stuck behind bone, and cutting the woman’s perineal tissue does not resolve the problem. Then why do it? Most physicians I’ve spoken with admit it is simply a matter of protecting themselves legally: by cutting a large episiotomy, they can show they’ve done everything they could possibly do to try to deliver the baby.
A recent study by Paris et al concluded episiotomy does not appear to reduce brachial plexus injuries (a rare paralysis associated with shoulder dsytocia):
There were a total of 94,842 births, 953 shoulder dystocias, and 102 brachial plexus injuries. The rate of episiotomy with shoulder dystocia dropped from 40% in 1999 to 4% in 2009 (P = .005) with no change in the rate of brachial plexus injuries per 1000 vaginal births.
Despite the evidence, shoulder dystocia is still commonly cited on popular consumer websites as a reason for episiotomy.
Overall, there are sometimes good reasons to perform episiotomy for the safety of the woman, the fetus, or both. However, as Kim Gibbon of the RCM notes,
Consent is required for episiotomy, as it woud be for any surgical procedure. Women must be given a full explanation of the nature of the procedure and the situations under which its use will be proposed (Carroli and Belizan, 1999). Ideally, this should occur in the antenatal period so that the woman’s consent can be sought and documented at this stage. Further explanation should be given to the woman when a decision to use episiotomy is made to provide reassurance and confirm consent.
The Leapfrog Group has begun reporting episiotomy rates as one of its maternity care measures. Unfortunately, reporting is voluntary at the hospital level, so there is only data for a limited number of hospitals (information on how to find the information on the Leapfrog site is at the bottom of the page *). Just looking at the data that is available shows enormous variations in practice. For instance, among the four campuses in the Baptist Memorial Hospital system in Mississippi, rates range from a low of 1.5% at the De Soto campus to a high of 38.8% at the Golden Triangle campus. Cesarean rates at all four campuses are similar (32% to 35%), so it appears that women who are not good candidates for vaginal birth (as well as a good number who are) have already been eliminated at all campuses. Skin elasticity is unlikely to vary much by region, so why the variation in episiotomy rates?
A report on the evidence for episiotomy by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) states,
Wide practice variations suggest that episiotomy use is heavily driven by local professional norms, experiences in training, and individual provider preference rather than variation in the physiology of vaginal birth.
Evidence indicates that many doctors have been slow to change practice regarding episiotomy, and that doctors who have not already changed may be increasingly reluctant to do so. Like recommendations for bed rest, tradition or a “feel good” factor for the doctor may trump actual health outcomes.
Consistent with the findings of the Canadian study of physicians and their views on episiotomy (cited in the previous section), some hospitals with high rates of episiotomy are less likely to adhere to evidence-based maternity practice overall. For instance, South Miami Hospital (of the Baptist Health South Florida network) has an episiotomy rate of 33.1%. They also have the highest cesarean rate in the state (62%) and have not reached Leapfrog goals for early elective deliveries (induction or cesarean before 39 weeks for no medical reason).
The AHRQ report appears to give the most accurate reason for continued use of episiotomy at high rates: provider preference. One obstetrician quoted in the New York Times said that during her residency, “Fifty percent of the episiotomies I’ve done were because my supervising staff wanted to go back to bed.” According to this Times story, the quoted doctor has a colleague, who “‘loves epis’ and cuts them during almost every vaginal birth.”
Mothers’ reports from My Ob Said What? indicate that time is indeed more important to some doctors than the integrity of women and their vaginas. One mother reports questioning why her OB performed an episiotomy and was told, ““Why did I just do an episiotomy? I did an episiotomy because you would have been pushing for another 20 minutes!” A friend of mine had an OB who told her, “Which do you think is easier for ME to sew up–a straight cut or a jagged tear?” (my friend switched practitioners). A study by Webb and Culhane found that obstetrical procedures such as episiotomies increased at peak times in Philadelphia hospitals, to the detriment of women:
The fact that incidences of 3rd or 4th degree lacerations are high at roughly the same times that procedure use is high is consistent with what is known about the risks associated with episiotomy and vacuum/forceps use, and suggests that efforts to influence the timing of births through more liberal use of obstetric interventions may increase the morbidity associated with vaginal delivery.
Although rates of episiotomy have decreased drastically overall, some doctors do still perform them routinely, as this doctor indicated to a first-time mom who requested not to have one: “Well, we’ll see. I find that pretty much all of my first time mothers require an episiotomy.”
In addition, like the woman above, many women do not consent to episiotomies, but are cut anyway. After one woman told her OB she did not want an episiotomy and preferred to tear (which is evidence based according to the Scandinavian study cited above), her OB told her, “I’m just giving you an episiotomy anyway.” Another woman commented at the Chicago Tribune,
When I was pushing out my third child, my doula nudged my husband and told him that the OB was preparing to cut an episiotomy. The OB had not asked me if it was ok, and hadn’t even mentioned it. My husband piped up and said, “My wife doesn’t want an episiotomy.” He said that twice. The OB ignored him and injected me with the lidocaine. I finally clued in and shouted “I do not consent to an episiotomy” two times before the OB put her scissors down. Two times!! The kicker is that I didn’t tear. Not one bit. The episiotomy would have been completely unnecessary.
A 2005 comprehensive review in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concurs with the above comment (emphasis mine):
The goals for quality of care must remain focused on both optimizing safety for the infant and minimizing harm to the mother. Given that focus, clinicians have the opportunity to forestall approximately 1 million episiotomies each year that are not improving outcomes for mothers.
While women sometimes successfully sue for episiotomies that are botched, as with cesarean (see this December 23, 2013 post), it is difficult to win a suit for an episiotomy performed without consent. Generally, a doctor argues that the procedure was in the best interest of the fetus, and the woman’s rights cease to matter.
But women do matter. Their pain matters. Their sexual pleasure matters. And most of all, their informed consent to what is done to their own bodies matters. Practitioners may want to believe that they know better than their patients and can therefore slice and dice as they please. They may believe that it is acceptable to sacrifice women’s bodily integrity to their own convenience. Such a stance turns a woman into an object, a vessel who can be treated in any fashion as long as her body yields a healthy baby. Women and those who love them must stand for a woman’s right to be human in childbirth — and always.