Roughly one million induced abortions are performed each year in the United States alone. Although deemed safe, therapeutic abortions, as well as spontaneous miscarriages, can lead to a variety of complications. Most complications are considered minor such as pain, bleeding, infection, and post-anesthesia complications, while others are major, namely uterine atony and subsequent hemorrhage, uterine perforation, injuries to adjacent organs (bladder or bowels), cervical laceration, failed abortion, septic abortion, and disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC).
The total abortion-related complication rate including all sources of care including emergency departments and the original abortion facility is estimated to be about 2%.
The incidence of abortion-related emergency department visits within six weeks of initial abortion procedure is about 40%.
Post-abortion complications develop as a result of three major mechanisms: (1) infection, (2) incomplete evacuation of the products of conception, leading to hemorrhagic complication, and (3) injury from the surgical procedure itself.
Complications based on gestational age are as follows:
The estimated abortion complication rate for all healthcare sources is about 2% for medication abortion, 1.3% for first-trimester aspiration abortion, and 1.5% for second-trimester or later abortions
In the United States, mortality rates per 100,000 abortions are as follows: fewer than 8 weeks - 0.5%; 11-12 weeks - 2%; 16-20 weeks - 14%; and more than 21 weeks - 18%.
In the United States, mortality from septic abortion rapidly declined after the legalization of abortions. Death now occurs in fewer than 1 per 100,000 abortions. The risk of death from septic abortion increases with the progression of gestation.
Curiously, one study reports that women aged 30–39 years were more likely to have a complication after an abortion compared with women ages 20–24 years and Hispanic women were significantly less likely to have a complication compared with white women.
As described in the Etiology section, there are three major mechanisms by which abortion complications can be classified. Infection can be the result of a failure to exercise universal precautions prior to the procedure, such as hand washing, surgical glove use, proper sterilization of the field, use of non-sterile instruments, as well as the presence of a pre-existing infectious process in a patient such as cervicitis or endometritis. (2) Incomplete evacuation of the products of conception leads to the collection of blood in the uterine, causing overdistention and atony which results in hemorrhage. It can also lead to infection and possible sepsis. (3) Injury from the surgical procedure itself depends upon the method used and include vaginal or cervical lacerations, as well as uterine, bowel, or bladder injury.
A good history is essential to make a timely and correct diagnosis. The emergency physician must ask the timing of the abortion, whether it was performed by an appropriate abortion provider at the appropriate facility, and whether any intraoperative or early postoperative complications took place. A thorough past medical and past surgical history are important to obtain, including chronic conditions or past surgeries that may complicate the current condition further. Careful medication history is of paramount importance, such as fertility medications and anticoagulants.
The presentation depends on the type of complication that a patient develops. Intraoperative and early postoperative complications are usually not seen in Emergency Departments (ED) as they are identified and managed by abortion providers during or immediately following the procedure.
However, the post-abortion triad (pain, bleeding, low-grade fever) frequently is seen in the ED, and the diagnosis of retained products of conception must be sought promptly as a source of the symptoms. Excessive bleeding (postoperative hemorrhage) may be indicative of uterine atony, uterine perforation, ectopic pregnancy, coagulopathy, or iatrogenic surgical instrumentation injury. The post-abortion syndrome can present as progressively worsening lower abdominal pain and hemodynamic compromise absent vaginal bleeding. This is due to the collection of blood and/or retained products of conception in the uterus, causing overdistention of the uterine cavity, which is unable to contract in order to expel its contents.
Bowel or bladder injury may initially present as bleeding and pain, but may quickly progress to infection and septic shock.
Failed abortion is more common with early gestational age, and patients may present to ED with symptoms of continued pregnancy.
The physical exam must include the following:
The following lab tests are helpful in the evaluation of post-abortion complications:
As always, ABC is first!
The patient's hemodynamic status must be assessed immediately, and intravenous access obtained. If the patient exhibits signs of volume depletion, the practitioner must start resuscitation with intravenous crystalloid fluids and assess the volume of blood loss. The potential for blood transfusion must be anticipated. The patient's vital signs, the rate of bleeding, and the overall condition must be monitored constantly for improvement or deterioration. Consider oxytocin administration in consultation with Ob/Gyn colleagues, if uterine atony is highly suspected. If the bleeding persists, DIC should be considered, and the patient should be prepared for the transfer to the operating room/intensive care unit.
Patients with a triad of pain, bleeding, low-grade fever should be volume resuscitated with intravenous crystalloids, pain treated with either non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or opioids, and broad-spectrum antibiotics must be started immediately, preferably intravenously. In most cases, the patient will require the evacuation of blood clots and/or retained products of conception. Thus an early Ob/Gyn consultation must be sought.
If uterine perforation, bladder or bowel injury are suspected, patients need hemodynamic resuscitation and expedited transfer to the operating room.
If a septic abortion is suspected, sepsis treatment must be instituted according to institutional guidelines, broad-spectrum antibiotics must be initiated as early as the diagnosis is considered, and arrangements need to be made to transfer the patient to the operating room.
In a hemodynamically stable patient, pelvic ultrasonography must be obtained to look for retained products of conception, failed abortion, continued pregnancy, or ectopic pregnancy.
The overall prognosis after suffering a complication from an abortion depends on the gestational age. The younger the gestational age, the lower the risk of complications. The highest risk of death is from a septic abortion; the majority of these cases are a result of illegal abortions in developing countries. Based on WHO data, nearly 70,000 women die each year as a result of complications from illegal or unsafe abortions. In the US, there were only 10 such deaths reported in 2010, but this could be due to under-reporting.
Abortion may seem to be a minor procedure but there are many medical and legal issues surrounding this procedure and they include the following:
Curiously, after reviewing multiple articles on the complications of abortion, it is worth mentioning that some studies that legally induced abortions are markedly safer than childbirth.
While most abortions are straightforward, there are some which are associated with complications, which can be life-threatening. Because of the high morbidity of abortion complications, an interprofessional team that includes an obstetrician, radiologist, triage nurses, nurse practitioner, general surgeon, urologist, and an infectious disease expert is recommended.
The majority of patients with post-abortion complications present to the emergency room and are first seen by the triage nurse. The triage nurse has to be familiar with potential post-abortion complications and quickly admit the patient and alert the interprofessional team. Besides acute hemorrhage, post-abortion complications can include septic shock, perforated bladder or bowel, and a possible ectopic pregnancy- all lethal conditions which if not promptly diagnosed can lead to high mortality. While the interprofessional team is arranging the imaging studies, the nurses need to ensure that the patient has 2 large-bore IV, oxygen and that routine blood work including a crossmatch has been sent. All hemodynamically unstable patients need to be continuously monitored by a dedicated nurse reporting abnormalities to the clinician.
A thorough physical exam including the pelvis must be done immediately to ensure that there are no missed injuries. If the patient requires urgent surgery, anesthesia and the operating room nurses need to be notified. Stable patients still need close monitoring since obvious internal bleeding may not be visible. During the monitoring period, the nurse should communicate immediately with the interprofessional team if there are any changes in the vital status or worsening of abdominal pain. Once the post-abortion complication has been managed, the interprofessional team including the nurse practitioner should educate the patient on proper contraceptive measures as a means of birth control, to avoid unwanted pregnancies. The patient should be urged to remain compliant with antibiotic therapy if the abortion was septic.
Over the past 3 decades, the mortality rates associated with abortions have significantly dropped in the US. However, outside North America and Europe, septic abortions continue to be associated with high rates of maternal mortality, chiefly because of illegal abortions performed in unsanitary environments. According to the WHO, each year nearly 70,000 women die globally from septic abortions. The risk of septic abortions is markedly increased with advanced gestational age. (Level V) The key to reducing mortality is patient education and increased awareness among the healthcare workers about the potentially lethal complications that can follow an abortion.
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