Placental abruption

Last revised by Joshua Kogan on 7 May 2024

Placental abruption (or abruptio placentae) refers to a premature separation of the normally implanted placenta after the 20th week of gestation and before the 3rd stage of labor. It is a potentially fatal complication of pregnancy and a significant cause of third-trimester bleeding/antepartum hemorrhage.

The estimated incidence is ~1% of all pregnancies. The rate of placental abruption is thought to have dramatically increased in the past few years.

A number of risk factors have been associated with placental abruption, including:

Patients typically present with painful vaginal bleeding with "board-like" abdominal tone. Bleeding can occasionally be 'concealed' as in a retroplacental hemorrhage

Other features include:

  • uterine contractions and irritability

  • lumbar pain

  • maternal/ fetal compromise secondary to exsanguination

The exact etiology is unknown, but the final pathophysiology is likely to rupture of a spiral artery with hemorrhage into the decidua basalis leading to separation of the placenta. The small vessel disease seen in abruptio placentae may also result in placental infarction.

According to the position of the abruption within the placenta it can be classified as:

Ultrasound is almost always the first (and usually the only) imaging modality used to evaluate placental abruption, but an index of suspicion should be maintained for the diagnosis since ultrasound is relatively insensitive for the diagnosis 9. This is partly because a retroplacental hematoma may be identified only in 2-25% of all abruptions.

The sonographic signs of placental abruption include:

  • retroplacental hematoma (often poorly echogenic)

  • intraplacental anechoic areas

  • separation and rounding of the placental edge

  • thickening of the placenta: often to over 5.5 cm

  • thickening of the retroplacental myometrium: usually should be 1-2 cm unless there is a focal myometrial contraction

  • disruption in retroplacental circulation

  • intra-amniotic echoes due to intra-amniotic hemorrhage

  • blood in the fetal stomach

  • intermembranous clot in twins

The echogenicity of hematomas depends upon their age. Acute hematomas imaged at the time of symptoms tend to be hyperechoic or isoechoic compared to the adjacent placenta. As the hematoma is commonly isoechoic to the placenta, it may be mistaken for focal thickening of the placenta. A 'normal' ultrasound does not exclude a placental abruption-particularly as the blood may have escaped through the vagina in the case of external hemorrhage

In other cases, the retroplacental hematoma may be hypoechoic or of heterogeneous echogenicity.

Since placental abruption is a concern in a pregnant patient who has undergone traumatic injury, CT is occasionally the first imaging modality used to evaluate the placenta.

The appearance of the placenta in the trauma patient is reviewed at "traumatic abruption placenta scale (TAPS)".

MR imaging can accurately detect placental abruption and should be considered after negative US findings in the presence of late pregnancy bleeding if the diagnosis of abruption would change management.

Hemorrhage due to abruption appears as an area of medium to high signal intensity on T1 and high signal intensity on a T2 weighted image, located between the placenta and uterine wall.

Given the low sensitivity for detecting placental abruption on ultrasound, if there is a high clinical suspicion, then it is likely prudent to treat based on the clinical suspicion 9.

If an abruption is detected, then the larger the size of the abruption, the greater the fetal morbidity. The presence of associated concurrent fetal bradycardia carries a poorer prognosis. Management for small abruptions is usually conservative - serial sonographic examinations with measurement of the retroplacental clot volume, antepartum heart rate and maternal symptoms has been suggested.

The recurrence rate of placental abruption is thought to vary between 19-25% 11

A number of conditions can simulate the appearance of placental abruption.

For an isoechoic hematoma in an acute to subacute abruption on ultrasound consider:

For a hypoechoic hematoma on ultrasound consider:

  • uterine leiomyoma

  • poorly echogenic subplacental space:

    • may also simulate a retroplacental hematoma

    • this appearance is often due to prominent veins in the decidua basalis

    • often color Doppler may help define the anatomy of this space

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