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Cesarean Section Risks and Complications

1 Contact Hour
This peer reviewed course is applicable for the following professions:
Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner (ARNP), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN), Midwife (MW), Nursing Student, Registered Nurse (RN)
This course will be updated or discontinued on or before Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Participants will understand evidence-based guidelines for caring for women after a Cesarean Section and manage complications.


After completing this continuing education course, the participant will be able to:

  1. Identify why c-sections are necessary.
  2. List complications associated with c-sections.
  3. Plan care for patients who have had c-sections.
  4. Identify how to prevent complications from a c-section.
  5. List long-term risks associated with c-sections.
CEUFast Inc. did not endorse any product, or receive any commercial support or sponsorship for this course. The Planning Committee and Authors do not have any conflict of interest.

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To earn of certificate of completion you have one of two options:
  1. Take test and pass with a score of at least 80%
  2. Reflect on practice impact by completing self-reflection, self-assessment and course evaluation.
    (NOTE: Some approval agencies and organizations require you to take a test and self reflection is NOT an option.)
Author:    Kelly LaMonica (DNP(c), MSN, RNC-OB, EFM)


Cesarean section (c-sections) rates vary across the United States ranging from 23-40%. There are risks and benefits to vaginal birth and c-sections. There are certain circumstances in which a c-section is the safest route of delivery, even with the increased risks of surgery.

Reasons for a C-section

A c-section can save the life of a mother or fetus. Reasons for performing a c-section include, but are not limited to, small maternal pelvis, chorioamnionitis requiring immediate delivery, maternal pelvic deformity, eclampsia, life-threatening complications of pregnancy, a woman with cardiac disease that may not tolerate stress of labor, fetal asphyxia or fetal acidosis, life-threatening situations for the fetus that can lead to fetal hypoxia, umbilical cord prolapse, placenta previa, abnormal lie or presentation of the fetus, or uterine rupture. A fetal heart tracing is most commonly used to assess fetal acidosis. It is not accurate but there are no better options at this time. A category III fetal heart rate requires a c-section if the woman is remote from delivery. A category II fetal heart rate is a larger, harder to interpret category that may also lead to a c-section. Multiple gestation pregnancies and women with active herpes simplex virus are also recommended cesarean birth. One (or even two) c-sections does not mean that a woman must have a c-section delivery with her next pregnancy. The woman should be evaluated and have discussions with her provider. The risk of uterine rupture is slightly higher, but she can be monitored during labor for signs of uterine rupture. A vertical incision in the uterus would not make her a candidate for a trial of labor after cesarean (TOLAC).

There are some reasons that likely have increased the risk of a c-section over time. These include increased maternal age during pregnancy, increased obesity and incidences of gestational diabetes, and increased use of fertility treatments.1 One other factor that may increase the c-section rate is the medical-legal aspect of labor and delivery. Malpractice rates and no cap limits on birth injuries may influence a provider’s decision to perform a c-section.2


Intraoperative complications that could occur during a c-section are hemorrhage and surgical injury to the mother, such as a bladder injury, or to the fetus, such as a facial laceration. Endometritis, infections, and wound complications all can occur with a c-section. Pain after a c-section is usually more intense than after vaginal delivery. A woman may have more difficulty moving and caring for her newborn. A thrombotic event such as ischemic stroke, acute myocardial infarction, venous thromboembolism during the first 6 weeks postpartum occurs significantly more after a c-section birth over a vaginal birth.3 An ileus can also occur after surgery. Adhesions are possible after a c-section, causing problems with future pregnancies. A woman undergoing a c-section could have a reaction to anesthesia. Most often, spinal anesthesia is used with little complications, but general anesthesia may be used in an emergency case and can cause life-threatening complications, such as malignant hyperthermia.

Prevention of Complications

Not all of the associated complications can be prevented. Infections can be prevented by using strict sterile technique, providing intravenous (IV) antibiotics within 60 minutes prior to incision, and using a chlorhexidine-alcohol scrub before the surgery.4 A vaginal cleanse should also be performed if the woman has labored prior to the c-section. If hair removal is needed, this should be done by clipping, not shaving. For all women undergoing cesarean delivery, mechanical thromboprophylaxis is recommended. For women with a high risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE), mechanical thromboprophylaxis and pharmacologic thromboprophylaxis (Lovenox, Heparin) are recommended. Pharmacologic prophylaxis should begin at 6 to 12 hours postoperatively. Mechanical and pharmacologic prophylaxis should be continued until the woman is fully ambulating. Multimodal pain relief options should be used to help the woman to move easier and care for her baby while preventing the overuse of narcotics. Early ambulation and oral intake have both been shown to promote recovery.5

Long-Term Risks

Long-term risks from a c-section can be serious. A cesarean delivery significantly increases the risk of abnormal placentation in future pregnancies. This risk increases with each c-section. Placenta previa occurs when the placenta implants and covers part or all of the woman’s cervix, making vaginal delivery impossible. This can cause bleeding throughout pregnancy and/ or significant hemorrhage. The severity of bleeding will determine the timing of delivery and may lead to pre-term delivery. Placenta accreta spectrum refers to the range of adherence of the placenta, including placenta increta, placenta percreta, and placenta accreta. Placenta accreta spectrum is the invasion of part or all of the placenta into the myometrium of the uterine wall. Placenta accreta is serious and requires extensive surgery. The woman may require a hysterectomy to prevent death from hemorrhage. A surgical team must be planned, along with planned blood product replacements and hemodynamic monitoring for the woman.6 Ectopic pregnancies in the future is a risk. Women who have c-sections are at risk for preterm delivery and stillbirth with future pregnancies. Women who have c-sections are also at risk for uterine rupture in future pregnancies. This risk increases with a trial of labor after cesarean.7

Case Study

Patient A.S. comes to your labor and delivery unit. She wants to have a trial of labor after cesarean (TOLAC). Her first c-section was for a non-reassuring fetal heart rate. That baby was born with an umbilical cord around the neck but was fine after delivery. She is 6cm dilated and contracting every 2 minutes. Her vital signs are normal.

Is she a candidate for a TOLAC?

  • Yes, she is. She had the first c-section for fetal distress. As long as she did not have a vertical uterine incision with her first baby, she is a candidate.

What is the biggest risk for this woman during labor, given that the pregnancy has been normal until labor?

  • A uterine rupture would be the only risk for this woman. Her placenta is normal so a uterine rupture would be her biggest risk during labor.


Cesarean sections are necessary to prevent maternal or fetal risks or death in certain circumstances. A c-section is not the appropriate method of delivery for every woman. There are risks to both the mom and fetus. The benefits and risks must be weighed before a c-section delivery.

Select one of the following methods to complete this course.

Take TestPass an exam testing your knowledge of the course material.
Reflect on Practice ImpactDescribe how this course will impact your practice.   (No Test)


  1. Mylonas I, Friese K. Indications for and Risks of Elective Cesarean Section. Deutsches Aerzteblatt Online. 2015. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2015.0489. Visit Source.
  2. Obstetric Care Consensus No. 1. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2014;123(3):693-711. doi:10.1097/01.aog.0000444441.04111.1d. Visit Source.
  3. Kamel H, Navi BB, Sriram N, et al. Risk of a thrombotic event after the 6-week postpartum period. N Engl J Med 2014; 370:1307.
  4. Tuuli MG, Liu J, Stout MJ, et al. A Randomized Trial Comparing Skin Antiseptic Agents at Cesarean Delivery. N Engl J Med 2016; 374:647.
  5. PERIOPERATIVE CARE OF THE PREGNANT WOMAN. Place of publication not identified: AWHONN; 2019.
  6. Obstetric Care Consensus No. 7. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2018;132(6). doi:10.1097/aog.0000000000002983. Visit Source.
  7. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. ACOG Practice Bulletin no. 205: Vaginal Birth After Cesarean Delivery. Obstet Gynecol 2019.