Scary Shit Series – Placental Abruption

Placental Abruption

The placenta does not get nearly as much love as it deserves. For most of us, it is a passing curiosity. After my oldest was born the midwife asked if I wanted to inspect it. I looked at the weird bloody jellyfish she was holding and said, “Nah, that’s good enough.”

Even the women who choose to plant / make art with / eat their placenta still may not spend a lot of time contemplating its role during the actual pregnancy.

The umbilical cord gets all the credit for keeping the baby connected to her mother inside her uterine home. Yet, the placenta is the one feeding the cord, filtering out toxins, providing oxygen and generally doing most of the work.


When it stops working, things get scary fast.

One of the most terrifying possibilities is that the placenta decides to try to leave the building entirely.

This is called a placental abruption.

What is placental abruption?

Occurring in approximately .5 – 1% of pregnancies, placental abruption is when the placenta starts to pull away from the uterine wall. It can happen with varying degrees of severity, depending on how much of it detaches.

What are the symptoms?

  • Bleeding – The most common symptom, though in the case of a partial abruption the blood can become trapped behind the placenta and not be visible externally.
  • Back pain
  • Uterine tenderness
  • Abdominal pain

If you are having any of these symptoms, call your provider. In the case of heavy bleeding, call on your way to the hospital, or call 911.

In my case, I was 29 weeks pregnant and having a lovely day when I went to the bathroom and felt a gush. I looked at the toilet paper and it was bright red. I stood up and looked in the toilet and the water was also bright red. There were several more gushes of blood in the next hour.

Who is at risk?

Placental abruptions can happen with no warning and it is not entirely known why. However, there are some risk factors:

  • History of abruption
  • Being over age 35
  • Preeclampsia or hypertension
  • Smoking
  • Using cocaine during pregnancy (generally not a good idea)
  • Abdominal trauma
  • Uterine abnormalities
  • Premature rupture of membranes
  • Pregnant with twins+


It is difficult to diagnose a placental abruption, though it can sometimes be seen on an ultrasound. In many cases it is only confirmed after delivery, upon inspection of the placenta.


Treatment depends on the severity of the abruption, amount of blood loss, fetal health, and gestation.

  • Mild abruption

The most common type of abruption – when only a small part of the placenta detaches.

In this case you will likely be monitored at the hospital, in some cases for a few days to make sure it resolves and does not worsen. Some form of bedrest and ongoing monitoring will likely be prescribed.

  • Moderate abruption

You will work with your provider to assess the risk of staying pregnant vs the risk of premature delivery. If possible you will be given steroid shots to mature the baby’s lungs.

If you are close to full term it is likely you will deliver the baby immediately.

  • Severe abruption

The placenta detaching all the way, or nearly all the way, is the pregnancy definition of shit hitting the fan. This is a life-threatening complication and delivery becomes a true emergency.

The baby is no longer getting nutrients and oxygen from the placenta and as the blood vessels connecting the placenta to the uterus tear, it can cause major bleeding for the mother.


Outcomes are dependent on severity, gestational age, and resources.

In developed countries maternal death is rare, though occasionally a hysterectomy is required. Blood transfusions are a more common intervention.

The fetal risk is higher. In the case of severe abruption the fetal mortality rate is 15%, when accounting for both stillbirth and deaths due to complications of prematurity.


This is the Scary Shit Series and placental abruption is truly scary shit. Like many of the most terrifying complications, there is not much you can do to prevent it.

Overall it affects .5 – 1% of pregnancies, though most of those will be mild and without major complications.

If you experience bleeding during pregnancy, call your provider. If you are bleeding heavily, get to a hospital.

Silver lining: In my case, a partial abruption may have saved my life. If I had not started bleeding, I would not have gone to the hospital, where I was diagnosed with preeclampsia. The abruption was mild and resolved itself – but the preeclampsia could have been life threatening, had it gone untreated.

Some girls get all the scary shit.

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  • I was having back pain about a week before my due date. I went to the hospital and they determined I wasn’t in labor and gave me something to help me sleep and sent me home. The next morning I woke up to a wet bed, thinking my water broke, I was actually bleeding. Our friend is a nurse in the OB and we called her she said get here ASAP don’t wait for an ambulance. I had an emergency c-section and the doctor called my baby a miracle baby he was healthy with no brain damage. PTSD happened for sure.

  • I had placental abruption very early on in my pregnancy (8wk) and bled throughout most of it. The last time i bled was a couple of weeks before having my baby (he was born on his due date). I spent the major part of my pregnancy on strict bed rest. On numerous occasion i thought i lost him due to the amount of blood i lost. In the end all went well and i have a very healthy baby boy now but I don’t wish it on anyone…

  • I had a placental abruption with my second baby. Luckily i was already in the hospital (I started having contractions at my 33 week visit). I had a partial abruption, and while they were trying to figure it all out, I had another and was rushed back for an emergency c-section. One of the most terrifying times in my life, and i am so grateful i was in the hospital when it happened.

  • A very dear friend recently had a stillbirth due to placental abruption. She didn’t bleed so the doctors didn’t detect it and her baby girl passed away. My heart aches thinking about it, especially as we were pregnant “together” and I had a healthy baby boy in my arms as this happened to her. None of th at risk factors describe her, a former professional ballerina who had an otherwise wonderful pregnancy. Just the most heartbreaking thing.

  • I bled throughout my pregnancy and NO ONE could figure out why! Even after I was admitted for three days. It was the scariest thing. ‘Placental abruption’ was thrown about several times, and I would never, ever wish that upon someone. So scary! I’m glad your tear repaired itself and you got treatment!

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