Hypotonic Labor

Continuing Education Activity

Hypotonic labor is a dysfunction in the propulsive power of the uterus that presents as an abnormal labor pattern resulting in prolonged or protracted delivery, which is a common indication for primary cesarean section. Management options include supportive measures, medical treatment, and surgical interventions. In the absence of cephalo-pelvic disproportion and other absolute indications for cesarean delivery, the prognosis is good when the dysfunction is diagnosed early. This activity describes and highlights the role of the inter-professional team in managing patients with this condition.


  • Identify the etiology of hypotonic labor.
  • Outline the typical presentation in hypotonic labor.
  • Describe the management considerations in hypotonic labor.


Hypotonic labor is an abnormal labor pattern, notable especially during the active phase of labor, characterized by poor and inadequate uterine contractions that are ineffective to cause cervical dilation, effacement, and fetal descent, leading to a prolonged or protracted delivery.

Normal labor is divided into three stages, with the first stage typically described in two phases - the latent and active phases. In the active phase, uterine contractions are expected to occur at frequent intervals, increasing the intensity and duration of each contraction. These are deranged in hypotonic labor. Four factors influence the normal progression of labor, denoted as the - 4P, power (uterine contractions), passage (maternal bony pelvis), passenger (fetus), and fetal presentation.[1] 

Hypotonic labor is primarily a dysfunction of power. There is inadequate propulsive power to cause fetal descent, cervical dilatation, and eventual expulsion of the fetus(es) and placenta.


The cause of hypotonic labor is uterine inertia, also known as hypotonic or hypocontractile uterine dysfunction. Though the etiology of the inertia is unknown, these conditions are commonly associated with hypocontractile uterine dysfunction:

  • Uterine overdistension and overuse as seen in multifetal gestation, fetal macrosomia, polyhydramnios and grand-multiparity
  • Mechanical disruption of myometrial function from myoma or distension of the bladder or bowel
  • Malpositioning and malpresentation of the fetus, where there is absent reflex in uterine contraction, due to inadequate contact of the presenting part onto the lower uterine segment
  • Abnormal uterine axis as seen in a pendulous abdomen. There is an exaggerated anteversion of the uterus.
  • Uterine deformities or myometrial disorganization as seen with developmental uterine hypoplasia and extensive myomectomy
  • Prematurity below 30weeks gestation where oxytocin receptors are not fairly established
  • Other general/systemic causes may include maternal anemia, maternal exhaustion, and improper use of analgesia in labor.


Most labor abnormalities frequently occur in nulliparous women (25%) than in the multiparous group (10%), including those caused by hypocontractile uterine action. The incidence of labor abnormalities is also noted to be higher in elderly nulliparous women.

Uterine inertia is a common indication for primary cesarean section.[2] Many cesarean deliveries are found to be a result of poor labor progress.[3] Studies have found the most common cause of labor progress abnormality to be hypotonic uterine contractions.[4] In 2017, the USA and the UK had a cesarean section rate of 37% and 27.3% respectively. This increasing trend in cesarean deliveries, especially in developed countries, has drawn attention to the need to assess the indications for primary cesarean sections.


Normal uterine contractions are generated in a coordinated fashion by two uterine pacemakers located at the cornua portion of the uterine fundus (fundal dominance) and propagated in a synchronous order towards the lower uterine segment. The downward coordinated path of contraction explains the role of contraction in the downward migration of the fetus and cervical changes.

In the normal active phase, the frequency of contraction is usually 3 to 4 within 10minutes with a pressure of 30 to 50 mmHg above the resting tone. The minimum characteristics required to describe a contraction as effective are:

  • minimum frequent contractions with intervals less than 5 minutes apart and,
  • the intensity of contraction greater than 25 mmHg.

The duration of each contraction also increases from 30 seconds in early labor to between 60-90 seconds in the latter part of labor.[5]

Friedman established the accepted pattern for the normal progression of labor in the 1950s. The WHO adopted the Friedman curve on the partograph, a graphical labor monitoring tool. Based on his data on nulliparous and multiparous women, he described that transition from latent to the active phase of labor occurs at 3 to 4 cm cervical dilatation. He also described that for most women, the minimum rate of cervical dilatation in the active phase is 1.2cm/hour in nulliparous and faster in multiparous women at 1.5 cm cervical dilatation/ hour.

In hypocontractile uterine dysfunction, although the uterine basal tone is within the normal range (less than 10 mmHg), the peak/active pressure does not rise higher than 25 mmHg (normal pressure is about 60mmg or 8kPa). The hypotonic contractions are described with four properties: intensity, duration, relaxation, and interval. Characteristically, there is diminished intensity lower than 10mmHg, the duration is shortened less than 20 to 30 seconds, there is good relaxation between contractions, but the interval between contractions is increased. The frequency of contractions is often less than 2-3 within 10 minutes.

History and Physical

An assessment would confirm that ‘true’ labor has been established, with appropriate documentation of onset time. The patient feels less pain with every contraction, with less frequency and increasing intervals between the contractions. Maternal exhaustion is unusual but appears later as anxiety increases. The fetus is also usually not affected early on.

The common clinical finding is inadequate cervical dilatation or fetal descent. With ineffective labor, there may be observed slow progression called protracted labor, absence of progress called the arrest of labor or ineffective expulsive effort. The woman must be in the active phase with cervical dilatation up to 4 cm to be diagnosed with any of these dysfunctions.[6]


A qualitative evaluation of uterine activity can be performed by palpation and the use of monitoring tools like an external tocodynamometer. This assessment is subjective since diagnosis of hypocontractility is based on the perception that contractions are infrequent and weak with less than 3 to 4 contractions/10 minutes, and duration is less than 45 seconds.

Another qualitative evaluation of progression is the cervical assessment by digital examination. This tracks the changes in cervical dilatation, effacement, and fetal station performed at standard timed intervals from admission time through the various stages of labor. These changes may be charted on a partogram, which aids in comparison with the expected lower limit of normal labor progress. A deviation to the right of the normal labor curve on the partograph denotes slow progress.[7] A protraction in the active phase would refer to cervical dilation slower than 1 to 2 cm /hour, whereas active phase arrest is diagnosed where there is no cervical change for >6 hours with inadequate contractions.[8]

The internal pressure catheter is a device that measures the pressure generated by each contraction, recorded quantitatively in Montevideo units (MVU). Uterine activity less than 200 to 250 MVU is considered inadequate and unlikely to affect expected cervical dilation and fetal descent. This may be a more objective assessment than external monitoring in very obese women.

Treatment / Management

It is important to assess the mother and fetus to exclude other causes of abnormal labor progression, such as cephalopelvic disproportion (CPD) and fetal malpositioning.

Management can be discussed as supportive measures and active measures.

Supportive Measures

  1. Continuous reassurance to keep the mother calm. Maternal stress increases endogenous adrenaline, which can inhibit uterine contractions.
  2. Encourage ambulation and avoid supine position. Although these are not proven to improve contractions or prolonged labor due to hypocontractility, they may improve the comfort of the parturient.[9][10]
  3. Empty bladder, consider catheterization.
  4. Maintain adequate hydration.
  5. Adequate pain relief.

Active Measures

Medical management: These are interventions that improve the quality of uterine contractions.

  • Amniotomy

Membrane rupture (amniotomy) stimulates contractions by the release of prostaglandins and reflex stimulation of the uterus when the presenting part becomes closely applied to the lower uterine segment. Amniotomy should be attempted when vaginal delivery is probable; where cervical dilatation > 4 cm, there is adequate fetal descent (station -2 or lower), and the presenting part is well-applied to the lower uterine segment.

  • Oxytocin

Provided there are no contraindications. Oxytocin is the medication of choice for augmenting contractions. The dosage regimen should be titrated to effect for achieving adequate uterine contractions. However, dosing generally does not exceed 30milliunit/ minute.[11] The usual protocol is 5units of oxytocin in 500mls of 5% Dextrose intravenous infusion, starting with 10 drops/min and gradually titrating the rate to achieve a contraction rate of at least 3 per minute. 

A combination of amniotomy and oxytocin augmentation is effective in the management of hypocontractile labor than amniotomy alone when instituted early in the active phase.[12]

Surgical management:

  • Assisted vaginal delivery may be performed using forceps, vacuum, or breach extraction provided the cervix is fully dilated, and vaginal delivery is indicated and probable.
  • Operative delivery by cesarean section should be considered early when the assessment indicates a CPD or fetal malpositioning/malpresentation. However, in the absence of an early indication, cesarean section is performed if all other measures have failed to stimulate the uterine contractions; when oxytocin is contraindicated (including cephalopelvic disproportion), if there is maternal exhaustion, fetal distress (category III fetal heart tracing), or before full cervical dilation.[13]

Differential Diagnosis

Differential diagnosis of hypotonic labor include:

  • Braxton-hicks contractions
  • Amnionitis
  • Malpresentation/ malpositioning
  • Uterine rupture


The prognosis is good. The maternal and fetal outcomes are favorable when hypotonic labor is recognized early and timely interventions instituted while ensuring close monitoring. The risk of a surgical intervention increases when decreased uterine activity occurs in the presence of a cephalopelvic disproportion, fetal malpositioning, or fetal distress. The early decision for cesarean section improves both maternal and fetal outcomes.


Complications of hypotonic labor may be maternal, fetal, or both.

  • Arrest of labor
  • Maternal anxiety and exhaustion
  • Postpartum hemorrhage due to uterine atony
  • Retained placenta due to ineffective myometrial retraction
  • Increased risk of instrumental delivery and possible injuries to mother and baby
  • Cesarean section risk with the attending surgical and anesthetic complications
  • Fetal distress and birth asphyxia


In hypotonic labor, consultations may become necessary. A patient under the care of a trained obstetric nurse or midwife may require consultations with an obstetrician. In a health facility without an obstetrician, or where provision for cesarean section and instrumental vaginal delivery is unavailable; an early referral to a higher level of care is recommended if protracted labor is diagnosed or anticipated.

At the accepting health facility, the care team must include an obstetrician who should be consulted ahead of a transfer and all records on the progress of labor provided.

Supportive consultation with the anesthetists and pharmacists is recommended where analgesic or anesthetic support is required. Their involvement is necessary during situations of oxytocin complications (hypotension, tachysystole, or oxytocin hypersensitivity).

Deterrence and Patient Education

The psychological preparation of patients before labor appears to improve pain tolerance during labor. This should begin during routine antenatal visits and the counseling for labor analgesia. This preparation may serve to reduce the need for neuraxial analgesia in labor, which is a probable predisposing factor for hypocontractile labor.

Pearls and Other Issues

Although the prognostic outcome of hypotonic labor is good, it is still important to explore the other components of labor when making a diagnosis of an abnormality with power (uterine contraction). A diagnosis of cephalo-pelvic disproportion should not be missed, as this is an immediate indication for cesarean section.

Typically, maternal exhaustion and fetal distress do not present early in hypotonic labor. They occur later in the labor process and should have the utmost priority irrespective of the adequacy of labor progression. Even where cervical dilation is complete or near-complete, fetal distress should not be ignored in favor of a vaginal delivery.

In the absence of an absolute indication for cesarean section, hypotonic contractions are very responsive to the use of oxytocin to augment the labor. It should only be administered by qualified professional personnel who understand the oxytocin indications, dosing, contraindications, and signs of complication within a facility where surgical interventions are immediately accessible. Oxytocin is contraindicated or discontinued in the following conditions:

  • Fetal prematurity and fetal distress when vaginal delivery is not imminent
  • Contraindication for vaginal delivery (vasa previa, cord prolapse/presentation, active genital herpes, or cervical cancer)
  • Cephalopelvic disproportion (CPD)
  • Abnormal fetal presentation/position
  • Uterine hypertonicity or hyperactivity
  • High risk for uterine rupture (grand multiparity, uterine overdistension, or extensive uterine surgeries)
  • Obstetric emergencies that necessitate a surgical intervention

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

The anticipation of hypotonic labor and subsequent diagnosis and management requires interprofessional team management. The trained obstetric nurse or midwife may identify the risk factors during the antenatal visits and ensure appropriate monitoring at the time of labor. The midwife is also key in charting the labor progression using the various monitoring tools. They must be able to recognize an abnormal progression pattern and involve the necessary specialist in the care plan.

The Obstetrician usually takes the lead on the interprofessional team, ensuring early detection of slow progress due to hypocontractility and implementing the appropriate step-wise interventions and monitoring while coordinating the input of other team members.

The anesthetist and pharmacists ensure the patient has adequate pain management, especially where assisted or operative delivery is required.

For cases that require intrauterine fetal resuscitation, instrumental delivery, or cesarean delivery, early involvement of the neonatologist ensures continuity of postpartum care.

The team management approach improves maternal and fetal outcomes and may lower the average cesarean section rates. [Level 5]

Article Details

Article Author

Nkechi Dike

Article Editor:

Rebecca Ibine


11/2/2020 6:59:30 AM

PubMed Link:

Hypotonic Labor



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