The usual length of a human pregnancy is 38-42 weeks after the first day of the last menstrual period. Labor is a natural series of events that indicate that the birth process is starting. Premature labor is defined as contractionsthat occur after 20 weeks and before 37 weeks during the term of pregnancy.The baby is more likely to survive and be healthy if it remains in the uterusfor the full term of the pregnancy. It is estimated that between 10% of births in the United States occur during the premature period. Premature birth isthe greatest cause of newborn illness and death. In the U.S., prematurity has a greater impact on African-Americans.
The causes of premature labor cannot always be determined. Some research suggests that infection of the urinary or reproductive tract may stimulate premature labor and premature births. Multiple pregnancies (twins, triplets, etc.)are more likely to result in premature labor. Smoking, alcohol use, drug abuse and poor nutrition can increase the risk of premature labor and birth. Adolescent mothers are also at higher risk for premature delivery. Women whose mothers took diethylstilbestrol (DES) when they carried them are more likely todeliver prematurely, as are women who have had previous surgery on the cervix.
The symptoms of premature labor can include contractions of the uterus or tightening of the abdomen, which occur every ten minutes or more frequently. These contractions usually increase in frequency, duration, and intensity, and may or may not be painful. Other symptoms associated with premature labor caninclude menstrual-like cramps, abdominal cramping with or without diarrhea, pressure or pain in the pelvic region, low backache, or a change in the coloror amount of vaginal discharge. As labor progresses, the cervix or opening ofthe uterus will open (dilate) and the tissue around it will become thinner (efface). Premature rupture of membranes (when the water breaks) may also occur.
An occasional contraction can occur anytime during the pregnancy and does notnecessarily indicate that labor is starting. Premature contractions are sometimes confused with Braxton Hicks contractions, which can occur throughout the pregnancy. Braxton Hicks contractions do not cause the cervix to open or efface, and are considered "false labor."
To diagnose premature labor the health care provider will conduct a physicalexamination and ask about the timing and intensity of the contractions. A vaginal examination is the only way to determine if the cervix has started to dilate or efface. Urine and blood samples may be collected to screen for infection. A vaginal culture (a cotton-tipped swab is used to collect some fluid and cells from the vagina) may be done to look for a vaginal infection. A fetalheart monitor may be placed on the mother's abdomen to record the heartbeatof the fetus and to time the contractions. A fetal ultrasound may be performed to determine the age and weight of the fetus, the condition of the placenta, and to see if there is more than one fetus present.
The goal of treatment is to stop the premature labor and prevent the fetus from being delivered before it is full term. A first recommendation may be forthe woman with premature contractions to lie down with feet elevated and to drink juice or other fluids. If contractions continue or increase, medical attention should be sought. In addition to bed rest, medical care may include intravenous fluids. Sometimes, this extra fluid is enough to stop contractions.In some cases, oral or injectable drugs like terbutaline sulfate, ritodrine,magnesium sulfate, or nifedipine must be given to stop the contractions. These are generally very effective; however, as with any drug therapy, there arerisks of side effects. Some women may need to continue on medication for theduration of the pregnancy. Antibiotics may be prescribed if a vaginal or urinary tract infection is detected. If the membranes have already ruptured, itmay be difficult or impossible to stop premature labor. If infection of the membranes that cover the fetus (chorioamnionitis) develops, the baby must be delivered.
If premature labor is managed successfully, the pregnancy may continue normally until the delivery of a healthy infant. Once symptoms of preterm labor occur during the pregnancy, the mother and fetus need to be monitored regularlysince it is likely that premature labor will occur again. If the preterm labor cannot be stopped or controlled, the infant will be delivered prematurely.Infants that are born prematurely have an increased risk of health problems including birth defects, lung problems, mental retardation, blindness, deafness, and developmental disabilities. If the infant is born too early, its bodysystems may not be mature enough for it to survive. Evaluating the infant's lung maturity is one of the keys to determining its chance of survival. Fetuses delivered further into pregnancy and those with more mature lungs are morelikely to survive.
Smoking, poor nutrition, and drug or alcohol abuse can increasethe risk of premature labor and early delivery. A healthy diet and prenatalvitamin supplements (prescribed by the health care provider) are important for the growth of the fetus and the health of the mother. Pregnant women are advised to see a health care provider early in the pregnancy and receive regular prenatal examinations throughout the pregnancy.