Premature Rupture of Membranes (PROM)
Premature rupture of membranes (PROM) is an event that occurs during pregnancy when the sac containing the developing baby (fetus) and the amniotic fluid bursts or develops a hole prior to the start of labor.
During pregnancy, the unborn baby (fetus) is surrounded and cushioned by a liquid called amniotic fluid. This fluid, along with the fetus and the placenta, is enclosed within a sac called the amniotic membrane. The amniotic fluid is important for several reasons. It cushions and protects the fetus, allowing the fetus to move freely. The amniotic fluid also allows the umbilical cord to float, preventing it from being compressed and cutting off the fetus’s supply of oxygen and nutrients. The amniotic membrane contains the amniotic fluid and protects the fetal environment from the outside world. This barrier protects the fetus from organisms (like bacteria or viruses) that could travel up the vagina and potentially cause infection.
Although the fetus is almost always mature at between 36-40 weeks and can be born without complication, a normal pregnancy lasts an average of 40 weeks. At the end of 40 weeks, the pregnancy is referred to as being “term.” At term, labor usually begins. During labor, the muscles of the uterus contract repeatedly. This allows the cervix to begin to grow thinner (called effacement) and more open (dilatation). Eventually, the cervix will become completely effaced and dilated. In the most common sequence of events (about 90% of all deliveries), the amniotic membrane breaks (ruptures) around this time. The baby then leaves the uterus and enters the birth canal. Ultimately, the baby will be delivered out of the mother’s vagina. In the 30 minutes after the birth of the baby, the placenta should separate from the wall of the uterus and be delivered out of the vagina.
Sometimes the membranes burst before the start of labor, and this is called premature rupture of membranes (PROM). There are two types of PROM. One occurs at a point in pregnancy before normal labor and delivery should take place. This is called preterm PROM. The other type of PROM occurs at 36-40 weeks of pregnancy.
PROM occurs in about 10% of all pregnancies. Only about 20% of these cases are preterm PROM. Preterm PROM is responsible for about 34% of all premature births.
The causes of PROM have not been clearly identified. Some risk factors include smoking, multiple pregnancies (twins, triplets, etc.), and excess amniotic fluid (polyhydramnios). Certain procedures carry an increased risk of PROM, including amniocentesis (a diagnostic test involving extraction and examination of amniotic fluid) and cervical cerclage (a procedure in which the uterus is sewn shut to avoid premature labor). A condition called placental abruption is also associated with PROM, although it is not known which condition occurs first. In some cases of preterm PROM, it is believed that bacterial infection of the amniotic membrane causes it to weaken and then break. However, most cases of PROM and infection occur in the opposite order, with PROM occurring first followed by an infection.
Numerous risk factors are associated with preterm PROM. Black patients are at increased risk of preterm PROM compared with white patients. Other patients at higher risk include those who have lower socioeconomic status, are smokers, have a history of sexually transmitted infections, have had a previous preterm delivery, have vaginal bleeding, or have uterine distension (e.g., polyhydramnios, multifetal pregnancy). Procedures that may result in preterm PROM include cerclage and amniocentesis. There appears to be no single etiology of preterm PROM. Choriodecidual infection or inflammation may cause preterm PROM. A decrease in the collagen content of the membranes has been suggested to predispose patients to preterm PROM. It is likely that multiple factors predispose certain patients to preterm PROM.
The main symptom of PROM is fluid leaking from the vagina. It may be a sudden, large gush of fluid, or it may be a slow, constant trickle of fluid. The complications that may follow PROM include premature labor and delivery of the fetus, infections of the mother and/or the fetus, and compression of the umbilical cord (leading to oxygen deprivation in the fetus).
Labor almost always follows PROM, although the delay between PROM and the onset of labor varies. When PROM occurs at term, labor almost always begins within 24 hours. Earlier in pregnancy, labor can be delayed up to a week or more after PROM. The chance of infection increases as the time between PROM and labor increases. While this may cause doctors to encourage labor in the patient who has reached term, the risk of complications in a premature infant may cause doctors to try delaying labor and delivery in the case of preterm PROM.
The types of infections that can complicate PROM include amnionitis and endometritis. Amnionitis is an infection of the amniotic membrane. Endometritis is an infection of the innermost lining of the uterus. Amnionitis occurs in 0.5-1% of all pregnancies. In the case of PROM at term, amnionitis complicates about 3-15% of pregnancies. About 15-23% of all cases of preterm PROM will be complicated by amnionitis. The presence of amnionitis puts the fetus at great risk of developing an overwhelming infection (sepsis) circulating throughout its bloodstream. Preterm babies are the most susceptible to this life-threatening infection. One type of bacteria responsible for overwhelming infections in newborn babies is called group B streptococci.
Depending on the amount of amniotic fluid leaking from the vagina, diagnosing PROM may be easy. Some doctors note that amniotic fluid has a very characteristic musty smell. A pelvic exam using a sterile medical instrument (speculum) may reveal a trickle of amniotic fluid leaving the cervix, or a pool of amniotic fluid collected behind the cervix. One of two easy tests can be performed to confirm that the liquid is amniotic fluid. A drop of the fluid can be placed on nitrazine paper. Nitrazine paper is made so that it turns from yellowish green to dark blue when it comes in contact with amniotic fluid. Another test involves smearing a little of the fluid on a slide, allowing it to dry, and then viewing it under a microscope. When viewed under the microscope, dried amniotic fluid will be easy to identify because it will look “feathery” like a fern.
Once PROM has been diagnosed, efforts are made to accurately determine the age of the fetus and the maturity of its lungs. Premature babies are at great risk if they have immature lungs. These evaluations can be made using amniocentesis and ultrasound measurements of the fetus’ size. Amniocentesis also allows the practitioner to check for infection. Other indications of infection include a fever in the mother, increased heart rate of the mother and/or the fetus, high white blood cell count in the mother, foul smelling or pus-filled discharge from the vagina, and a tender uterus.