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Episiotomy: When it's needed, when it's not


An episiotomy was once a routine part of childbirth, but the procedure isn't always necessary. Here's what you need to know about episiotomy risks, benefits and recovery.
By Mayo Clinic staff

An episiotomy is an incision made in the tissue between the vaginal opening and anus (perineum) during childbirth. Although an episiotomy was once a routine part of childbirth, that's no longer the case. If you're planning a vaginal delivery, here's what you need to know about episiotomy and childbirth.

The episiotomy tradition
For many years, an episiotomy was thought to help prevent more extensive vaginal tears during childbirth — and heal better than a natural tear. The procedure was also thought to reduce the risk of incontinence after childbirth and keep the bladder and rectum from drooping into the vagina.
Sounds reasonable, but researchers have found that routine episiotomies don't prevent these problems after all. Recovery is often uncomfortable, and sometimes the surgical incision is more extensive than a natural tear would have been. For some women, an episiotomy causes pain during sex in the months after delivery. An episiotomy also may increase the risk of fecal incontinence after delivery.

Episiotomy: When it's needed, when it's not
An episiotomy was once a routine part of childbirth. Today, the procedure is recommended only in certain cases. Here's what you need to know about episiotomy risks, benefits and recovery.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
An episiotomy is an incision made in the perineum — the tissue between the vaginal opening and the anus — during childbirth. Although an episiotomy was once a routine part of childbirth, that's no longer the case.

If you're planning a vaginal delivery, here's what you need to know about episiotomy and childbirth.

The episiotomy tradition

For years, an episiotomy was thought to help prevent more extensive vaginal tears during childbirth — and heal better than a natural tear. The procedure was also thought to keep the bladder from drooping and the rectum from protruding into the vagina after childbirth.

Today, however, research suggests that routine episiotomies don't prevent these problems after all.

Recovery is uncomfortable, and sometimes the surgical incision is more extensive than a natural tear would have been. Infection is possible. For some women, an episiotomy causes pain during sex in the months after delivery. An extensive episiotomy might also contribute to fecal incontinence after childbirth.

The new approach

Routine episiotomies are no longer recommended. Still, the procedure is warranted in some cases.

Your health care provider might recommend an episiotomy if:

If you need an episiotomy and you haven't had any type of anesthesia or the anesthesia has worn off, you'll likely receive an injection of a local anesthetic to numb the tissue. You shouldn't feel your health care provider making the incision or repairing it after delivery.

The role of warm compresses and tissue massage

During the second stage of labor — when you're pushing — your health care provider might apply warm compresses to the tissue between your vaginal opening and your anus. This might soften the tissue and help prevent tears in the skin. Although the evidence for warm compresses is stronger, some health care providers also massage the area between the vaginal opening and the anus as labor progresses. This is known as perineal massage. Your health care provider might even recommend trying perineal massage at home before delivery — although you don't have to do it if the idea makes you uncomfortable. Start by washing your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water. Make sure your nails are trimmed. Then rub a mild lubricant, such as K-Y jelly, on your thumbs. Place your thumbs just inside your vagina and press downward toward your rectum. Hold for one to two minutes. Then, slowly massage the lower half of your vagina. Repeat the massage once a day for 10 minutes at a time until delivery.

Healing from an episiotomy

If you have an episiotomy or tear during delivery, the wound might hurt for a few weeks — especially when you walk or sit. If the incision or tear is extensive, the tenderness might last longer. Any stitches used to repair the episiotomy will usually be absorbed on their own. In the meantime, you can help promote healing:

While you're healing, expect the discomfort to progressively improve. Contact your health care provider if the pain intensifies, you develop a fever or the wound produces a pus-like discharge. These could be signs of an infection.

Accept some uncertainty

Share your thoughts about episiotomy with your health care provider during your prenatal visits and again when labor begins. Remember, though, it's important to go into labor with an open mind. It'll take time for the baby to stretch the vaginal tissues to allow delivery, and sometimes the baby needs to be delivered before the vaginal tissues can stretch on their own. Count on your health care provider to respect your wishes about episiotomy — and to let you know when it's the safest option for you or your baby.



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