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Postpartum hemorrhage is a major cause of maternal morbidity and mortality, second only to cardiovascular disease. In the United States, the overall rate of postpartum hemorrhage increased 26% between 1994 and 2006.1 Postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) is a low volume, high-risk event that labor and delivery (L&D) nurses need to be prepared for. Rapid recognition and response are necessary to prevent the progression of hemorrhage as women can lose large volumes of blood very quickly due to the physiologic changes of pregnancy.1
Early identification of abnormal blood loss helps to prevent major hemorrhage. The 4 areas that need to be addressed for all women giving birth are1:
A standardized approach to measure cumulative blood loss
Recognition of clinical findings suggesting hypovolemia
Hemorrhage can occur prior to birth, early postpartum (within first 24 hours), or late postpartum (≥ 24 hours postpartum), but there is no single definition of hemorrhage.
A commonly used definition of > 500 mL for a vaginal birth and > 1,000 mL for a cesarean birth is inconsistent and not clearly related to morbidity, but may be useful as an alert for concern. In healthy women, blood loss is generally tolerated without vital sign changes until the total loss exceeds 1,000 mL.1 In 2017, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) revised their definition of PPH from the classic one described above to cumulative blood loss ≥1000 mL or bleeding associated with signs/symptoms of hypovolemia within 24 hours of the birth process regardless of delivery route.2
It is difficult to determine the exact incidence because of varying criteria, and it may occur in up to 5% of all deliveries.3 The rate of postpartum hemorrhage in the United States increased by 26% between 1994 and 2006.
In late pregnancy, uterine artery blood flow is 500-700mL/min. This is 15% of the woman’s cardiac output. In a normal delivery, once the placenta detaches from the uterus (and delivers), the myometrium contracts, which compresses blood vessels and maintains hemostasis. Hemostatic factors cause clotting at this time. An interruption to either of these processes can cause a hemorrhage.4
There are numerous causes of PPH. Consider the 4 “Ts” when evaluating a postpartum hemorrhage:
Uterine atony (lack of uterine tone) is the largest cause of hemorrhage, accounting for 70-80% of all postpartum hemorrhages. Trauma should be considered when looking for lacerations, hematoma, or a ruptured uterus. The third “T,” tissue, refers to retention of placental tissue, and the last “T,” thrombin, refers to coagulopathy. The patient may have an undiagnosed bleeding disorder or may have disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC).5
Postpartum hemorrhage risk assessments should be performed upon admission, pre-birth, and post-birth.7 The Association for Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nursing (AWHONN) created one version of a PPH risk assessment that can be used to assess women for their risk of PPH.
This tool is comprehensive because it looks at admission factors, pre-birth factors, and post-birth factors, all of which can affect a woman’s risk of hemorrhage. The tool even gives suggestions for interventions based on the woman’s risk. For example, a woman who is low-risk only needs a “type and hold” order for the blood bank, but a woman who is medium-risk should have a “type and screen” from the blood bank, and certain personnel should be notified of risk (provider, charge RN, anesthesia, blood bank). A woman who is high-risk should have a “type and cross,” notify personnel, and possibly deliver at a tertiary care center.7
The California maternal quality care collaborative (CMQCC) also has a postpartum hemorrhage risk assessment that is similar to the AWHONN tool. With any risk assessment used, it is important to remember that admission risks will remain, but labor and delivery can impose new risks to the woman.
Special consideration must be given to women who choose not to accept blood products, such as a woman who is a Jehovah’s witness. These women should be identified and counseled prenatally. The woman should be given information and a checklist to fill out, which state which products she wishes to receive or not receive. The woman should have a designated healthcare proxy. Some women will accept certain products, such as her own blood from a cell salvage system. It is important to have a plan of care for this woman and have the information available at the hospital. It is also important that these women have their hematocrit measured regularly near the end of pregnancy so the woman can take iron and vitamin C as needed to maintain her hematocrit. Erythropoietin is a medication that is used to maximize red blood cell production and may be given to these women.8 These women are at high risk and have special needs before they deliver their babies.
Accurate measurement of blood loss is essential for recognizing potentially life-threatening hemorrhage and the management of blood product replacement.1 Visual identification of blood loss has been used in the past. There are serious problems with visual estimation of blood loss. Amniotic fluid can impact the volume that is being identified. Providers tend to underestimate large blood loss volumes, leading to delayed treatment and increased complications for the woman.
Both AWHONN and the CMQCC recommend quantitative blood loss (QBL). Quantitative blood loss measures the amount of blood loss. QBL requires the L&D staff to measure all blood lost by using an under the buttocks drape that has a graduated collection container that will allow the staff to see the amount of blood in the drape. It is important that before the delivery of the baby, the RN or provider must look at the amount of amniotic fluid in the drape. The same thing is done in the canisters of an operating room (OR) for a cesarean section. The amount of amniotic fluid is deducted from the total amount of fluid. All the other items soaked with blood (i.e., lap pads, raytex, chux) are weighed as well (1 gram = 1 mL). The dry weight of each item is needed. The total weight, less dry weight, is then used to calculate blood loss.1 It can be difficult and time-consuming to perform QBL, but it is important for accurate blood loss. There are also newer products such as Triton, which are costly but may improve accuracy and decrease barriers.9
As soon as PPH is recognized, treatment must begin. Unit-standard, stage-based, obstetric hemorrhage emergency management plans with checklists is what the evidence shows work best.10 There are many components to this. Current evidence recommends that oxytocin be given as third stage active management (after delivery). This has been shown to decrease the chance of PPH.1
It is important to know that signs of hypovolemia may not occur until there are large amounts of blood loss.1
Table 2: Signs of Hypovolemia
Amount of Blood Loss
Slight change in blood pressure
Heart rate normal
Respiratory rate normal
Normal urine output
Narrowed pulse pressure*
Heart rate over 100
Respiratory rate 20-30
Urine output 20-30 mL/hr
Narrowed pulse pressure
Heart rate over 120
Respiratory rate 30-40
Urine output 5-15 mL/hr
≥ 2500 mL
Heart rate over 140
Respiratory rate over 40
Slight urine output or anuria
*Pulse pressure is the difference between the systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
It is also important to remember when the patient starts bleeding heavier than normal; atony is usually the cause. It is important to perform a thorough assessment, perform fundal massage, make sure that her bladder is empty, and stay with the patient while help is called.
There are numerous checklists or algorithms that follow the stages of hemorrhage. The checklists are similar, and each hospital should choose one to use. The ideal algorithm is one that has all of the stages on one page.1 There are also algorithms that have a page for each stage of hemorrhage, along with treatment.
There may be some differences in definitions within each algorithm. Generally, stage 1 occurs when there is blood loss > 500mL in vaginal birth and >1000mL in a cesarean section, but under 1500mL blood loss. During stage 1, the RN (or designee) should establish IV access if not present, increase IV oxytocin rate, apply vigorous fundal massage, and start giving medication. Vital Signs, including O2, sat & level of consciousness (LOC), should occur 5 minutes. Administer oxygen to maintain O2 sats at >95% as needed. The patient should have her bladder emptied with a straight catheter or foley and type and crossmatch for 2 units red blood cells STAT. Providers and RN should be discussing the cause of PPH.
Stage 2 occurs when the bleeding continues but is <1500mL. The patient should have additional medications, a 2nd IV placed, and blood brought to the bed. Labs should be ordered. The reason for PPH still needs to be determined. The patient may need to go to the OR. A uterine tamponade balloon may be useful. All OB providers should be trained on how to use a uterine tamponade balloon. The RN may assist by filling the balloon as directed by the manufacturer.
Stage 3 occurs when blood loss is >1500mL; the patient has had 2 units of blood or is unstable. At this time, all emergency personnel, including anesthesia, should be present. The massive transfusion protocol should be activated. The patient will need blood and blood products. A body and fluid warmer should be used at this time. The patient may need central hemodynamic monitoring. The patient may also need a hysterectomy or uterine artery ligation.1 This woman is at risk of shock and cardiac arrest. She may require close observation in the intensive care unit (ICU) once the crisis has passed.
All labor and delivery units should be prepared for hemorrhage. Every unit should have all medications available immediately. Each unit should also have a cart with hemorrhage supplies and checklists ready. A uterine tamponade balloon with instructions should also be included in the cart. Hospitals should also have a response team for this type of emergency, a massive transfusion protocol, and emergency blood release.10 Labor and delivery units should also be conducting hemorrhage drills with L&D staff and providers. Drills allow the staff to improve communication, readiness, and determine any barriers to appropriate treatment.12
Maternal outcomes improve with early and aggressive blood replacement intervention. Both emergency blood release (uncrossed O negative) and massive transfusion protocols should be in place. During a significant obstetric hemorrhage, transfusion should be based on vital signs and blood loss and should not be delayed by waiting for laboratory results. Calcium replacement will often be necessary with massive transfusion due to the citrate used for anticoagulation in blood products. During the massive transfusion, the patient’s arterial blood gas, electrolytes, and core temperature should be monitored, and all transfused fluids should be warmed. Direct warming of the patient should also be initiated to maintain euthermia and to avoid added coagulopathy.1
There are numerous medications used to treat PPH. The following uterotonic agents are used to help the uterus contract.
Oxytocin should be given after every delivery, but also additional oxytocin may be given for hemorrhage. It may be given intravenous (IV) or intramuscular (IM). The usual dose is 10 to 40 units. There are few side effects to oxytocin.
Methergine 0.2mg IM may be given every 2 to 4 hours. Nausea, vomiting, and hypertension are possible side effects. A woman with preeclampsia should not receive methergine.
Hemabate 250mcg IM may be given every 15 to 90 minutes. This medication can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shivering, and bronchospasm. This medication should not be given to women with asthma.
Cytotec 600-1000mcg may be given sublingual (SL), vaginally, or rectally. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and shivering are all side effects. It is important to remember that methergine and hemabate are both kept in the refrigerator.
Tranexamic acid (TXA) is a lysine analog and antifibrinolytic agent that is also being used in some L&D units to stop bleeding. This is given IV piggyback and must be reconstituted before use.1
Debriefing after an emergency, such as a postpartum hemorrhage, is also vital to the caregivers. Every stage 2 or 3 hemorrhage should have a debriefing. Conducting a debrief created a culture of safety in L&D. Debriefing should be confidential. It is not part of the patient record. Debriefing is used to determine what went well and identify any barriers to giving the best care. Debriefing improves communication among all involved and makes the unit safer.13 Debriefing also helps caregivers process their own feelings about the emergency.
Postpartum hemorrhage is a traumatic experience to the woman, her family, and the caregivers. During the crisis, it is difficult to explain what is happening. Studies have shown that some women never receive an explanation of what happened. It is important for the woman to know what happened so she can process the event. During the crisis, it also may be beneficial to the woman and the family, if the family can stay with the patient. It is important to provide a calm, healing environment after the crisis. Attention to the woman’s emotional status is important. She must be assessed for acute trauma and referred to counseling services if needed.1 Caregivers may also experience acute trauma and should seek resources as needed. Most hospitals have an employee assistance program that can start the process.
Victoria is a 31-year-old G2P1 who underwent cesarean at 11 pm for prolonged second stage and arrest of descent, after a 24-hour labor with dysfunctional labor, augmentation, and a 3-hour second stage. Birthweight was 4800 grams. Pre-op hematocrit was 37%. During surgery, blood loss reported to be 1000 mL, and an extension of the transverse uterine incision was sutured while extending in the left broad ligament. The patient is now in the recovery room at midnight and complaining of abdominal pain. BP 120/60, pulse 120. Patient passing a moderate amount of blood clots. Oxytocin running IV (125 cc/hr of D5RL with 20 U oxytocin). At 12:30 am, the patient passing more clots. BP 70/40, pulse 150, urine output less than 20cc since surgery. Abdomen seems distended.
Who should manage the patient?
Is an exam or surgery required?
What is the most likely cause?
What supplies should be readily available?
Who needs to be mobilized?
The patient is taken to surgery. Ten minutes prior to surgery, the patient is clearly in shock and oozing from IV sites and bleeding per vagina. Incision opened and revealed a large hematoma in broad ligament extending retroperitoneally, bleeding occurring from left corner uterine incision. Massive transfusion protocol started.
Postpartum hemorrhage is a serious complication of childbirth that increases maternal morbidity and mortality. PPH can have long-lasting effects on the woman, her family, and her caregivers. All L&D units must always be prepared for a hemorrhage. Supplies, medications, drills, and debriefings are all necessary tools to improve the care that a woman receives during a postpartum hemorrhage.
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OB Hemorrhage Toolkit V 2.0. OB Hemorrhage Toolkit V 2.0 | California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative. Accessed November 26, 2019. Visit Source.
Committee on Practice Bulletins-Obstetrics. Practice Bulletin No. 183: Postpartum Hemorrhage. Obstet Gynecol 2017; 130:e168. Reaffirmed 2019.
Sheldon WR, Blum J, Vogel JP, et al. Postpartum hemorrhage management, risks, and maternal outcomes: findings from the World Health Organization Multicountry Survey on Maternal and Newborn Health. BJOG 2014; 121 Suppl 1:5.
Lockwood CJ. Regulation of plasminogen activator inhibitor 1 expression by interaction of epidermal growth factor with progestin during decidualization of human endometrial stromal cells. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2001; 184:798.
The Epidemiology of Postpartum Hemorrhage in a Large, Nationwide Sample of Deliveries. (2010). Survey of Anesthesiology, 54(6), pp.282-283.
Nyfløt, L., Sandven, I., Stray-Pedersen, B., Pettersen, S., Al-Zirqi, I., Rosenberg, M., Jacobsen, A. and Vangen, S. (2017). Risk factors for severe postpartum hemorrhage: a case-control study. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 17(1).
Obstetric Hemorrhage ( AIM) - Maternal Health | Council. Accessed November 27, 2019. Visit Source.
Lyndon A, Lagrew D, Shields L, Main E, Cape V. Improving Health Care Response to Obstetric Hemorrhage. (California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative Toolkit to Transform Maternity Care) Developed under contract #11-1006 with the California Department of Public Health; Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health Division; Published by the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative, 3/17/15.
Committee Opinion No. 487: Preparing for Clinical Emergencies in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2011;117(4):1032-1034. doi:10.1097/aog.0b013e31821922eb.
Tirelli MA, Colpa-Lewis C. Nurse-Led Debriefing to Create a Culture of Safety Following Obstetric Emergencies. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing. 2017;46(3). doi:10.1016/j.jogn.2017.04.115.
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