Selective versus routine use of episiotomy for vaginal birth


Hong Jiang1, Xu Qian1, Guillermo Carroli2, Paul Garner3

1. School of Public Health, Fudan University, Department of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health, Shanghai, Shanghai, China
2. Centro Rosarino de Estudios Perinatales (CREP), Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina
3. Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Department of Clinical Sciences, Liverpool, Merseyside, UK

Jiang H, Qian X, Carroli G, Garner P. Selective versus routine use of episiotomy for vaginal birth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD000081. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000081.pub3

Access the full-text article here: DOI/10.1002/14651858.CD000081.pub3/full

What is the issue?

Normal birth can cause tears to the vagina and the surrounding tissue, usually as the baby's head is born, and sometimes these tears extend to the rectum. These are repaired surgically, but take time to heal. To avoid these severe tears, doctors have recommended making a surgical cut to the perineum with scissors or scalpel to prevent severe tearing and facilitate the birth. This intervention, known as an episiotomy, is used as a routine care policy during births in some countries. Both a tear and an episiotomy need sutures, and can result in severe pain, bleeding, infection, pain with sex, and can contribute to long term urinary incontinence.

Why is this important?

An episiotomy requires suturing and benefits and harms as part of routine management of normal births remains unclear. In particular, we need to know if it does indeed prevent large tears, because women otherwise may be subjected to an unnecessary operation, pain and in some cases long-term problems. The question of whether to apply a policy of routine episiotomy is important for clinical practice and for the health and well-being of women and babies.

What evidence did we find?

We prepared this edition of this review by updating the methods and searching for evidence from the medical literature on 14 September 2016. The review now includes 11 randomised controlled trials (with 5977 women) that compared episiotomy as needed (selective episiotomy) with routine episiotomy in terms of benefits and harms for mother and baby in women at low risk of instrumental delivery.

The trials were from ten different countries. In women where health staff were only conducting selective episiotomy, there may be 30% fewer with severe perineal trauma at birth compared with women where a policy of routine episiotomy was applied (eight trials, 5375 women, low-certainty evidence). We do not know if there is a difference in average blood loss between the groups (two trials, very low-certainty evidence). There is probably no difference in Apgar less than seven at five minutes, with no events in either groups (moderate-certainty evidence). We do not know if there is a difference in the number of women with moderate or severe perineal pain three days after giving birth (one trial, 165 women, very low-certainty evidence) but careful assessment of women's pain was not well carried out in the included trials. There may be little or no difference in the number of women developing perineal infection (two trials, low-certainty evidence); and there is probably little or no difference in women reporting painful sexual intercourse six months or more after delivery (three trials, 1107 women, moderate-certainty evidence); for urinary incontinence six months or more after delivery, there may be little or no difference between the groups. One study reported genital prolapse three years after the birth and there was no clear difference between groups (low-certainty evidence). Other important outcomes relating to long-term effects were not reported in these trials (urinary fistula, rectal fistula, and faecal incontinence).

One trial examined selective episiotomy compared with routine episiotomy in women for whom an operative vaginal birth was intended. The results showed no clear difference in severe perineal trauma between the restrictive and routine use of episiotomy.

Women's views on the different policies were not reported.

What does this mean?

Overall, the findings show that selective use of episiotomy in women (where a normal delivery without forceps is anticipated) means that fewer women have severe perineal trauma. Thus the rationale for conducting routine episiotomies to prevent severe perineal trauma is not justified by current evidence, and we could not identify any benefits of routine episiotomy for the baby or the mother.

More research is needed in order to inform policy in women where an instrumental birth is planned and episiotomy is often advocated. Outcomes could be better standardised and measured.