Placental insufficiency is an uncommon but serious complication of pregnancy. The following will discuss its causes, symptoms, consequences to a fetus and optional treatments for placental insufficiency.
What is a placenta and what is it for?
The placenta is an organ that sustains the life of the developing fetus in the womb. It provides the fetus with oxygenated blood and nutrients supplied by the mother and removes waste products from the fetus. In other words, it does all the work that our lungs, liver, kidneys and other organs perform to sustain life after birth.
The placenta is formed as part of the normal development of the implanted embryo and fetus. It attaches to the wall of the uterus and feeds the fetus through the umbilical cord. It takes the place of your baby’s lungs and other organs while they are being developed.
At birth, after the placenta has done its job, your baby’s own organs take over the functions of the placenta during pregnancy. You will continue to have contractions for a short while until the placenta and umbilical cord are expelled.
What is placental insufficiency?
Placental insufficiency is one of several possible placental disorders. Simply put, it is not doing the job as it was intended. It is not providing the oxygen and nutrients as it should, and it is not removing waste products as it should.
What are the symptoms and consequences of placental insufficiency?
Some placental dysfunctions cause symptoms for the mother as well as adverse consequences for the fetus. A mother’s symptoms of some placental dysfunctions include vaginal bleeding and preterm contractions. However, placental insufficiency has few if any symptoms for the mother. If the growth of the fetus is abnormal, it might manifest in a smaller abdomen for the mother and fewer noticeable movements from the baby.
The consequences of placental insufficiency can be serious for the fetus. It impedes the placenta’s critical function to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your baby. The consequences are typical of any deprivation of those elements.
The placental process of transforming smaller uterine arteries into larger placental vessels is necessary for adequate blood supply. The process is known as “placentation.” One of the reasons for imperfect placentation is that the placenta does not attach perfectly to the uterine wall.
When that process deteriorates, the baby’s oxygen and nutrient supply is impacted and the fetus growth is compromised.
The earlier in the pregnancy that placental insufficiency sets in, the more severe the problems can be for the baby. Consequences for the baby include:
- oxygen deprivation at birth, causing cerebral palsy and other complications
- learning disabilities
- low blood calcium
- excess red blood cells
Diagnosis of placental insufficiency is problematic, in part because the incidence of it is uncommon and it is usually asymptomatic for the mother. There is no standardized diagnostic methods for determining placental insufficiency.
If it is diagnosed, there is no cure. Since the mother typically shows no symptoms, certain tests can be administered as a preventative measure. The problem is, there is not much to be done if the condition is identified.
If placental insufficiency is suspected, doppler ultrasound can measure fetal-maternal circulation through the placenta. Other tests can monitor the baby’s heart rate. However, abnormality of those factors may suggest conditions other than placental insufficiency.
Certain factors can contribute to placenta health problems including having diabetes, high blood pressure, anemia and blood clotting disorders, drinking alcohol, using drugs and smoking during pregnancy. If those contributing factors are present, your doctor might make an extra effort to look for signs.
Treatment options are limited for placental insufficiency. Once it is suspected or discovered, you must avoid all contributing factors if you have not done so already. Your doctor will closely monitor the fetus’s development. If your pregnancy is near full term, your doctor may decide to induce labor or deliver the baby by cesarean section so that oxygen and nutrients can be delivered artificially as needed.
Placental insufficiency is hard to diagnose because the mother experiences little or no symptoms. This is one of many reasons why you should avoid all contributing factors, see your obstetrician regularly and report all events so he or she can assess the progress of your baby’s growth and development.