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Department of Reproductive Health and Research (RHR), World Health Organization

Managing Complications in Pregnancy and Childbirth

A guide for midwives and doctors 


Section 2 - Symptoms

Abdominal pain in later pregnancy and after childbirth


  • The woman is experiencing abdominal pain after 22 weeks of pregnancy.

  • The woman is experiencing abdominal pain during the first 6 weeks after childbirth.


  • Make a rapid evaluation of the general condition of the woman including vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, respiration, temperature).

  • If shock is suspected, immediately begin treatment. Even if signs of shock are not present, keep shock in mind as you evaluate the woman further because her status may worsen rapidly. If shock develops, it is important to begin treatment immediately.

Note: Appendicitis should be suspected in any woman having abdominal pain. Appendicitis can be confused with other more common problems in pregnancy which cause abdominal pain. If appendicitis occurs in late pregnancy, the infection may be walled off by the gravid uterus. The size of the uterus rapidly decreases after delivery, allowing the infection to spill into the peritoneal cavity. In these cases, appendicitis presents as generalized peritonitis.



Diagnosis of abdominal pain in later pregnancy and after childbirth 

Presenting Symptom and Other Symptoms and Signs Typically Present

Symptoms and Signs Sometimes Present

Probable Diagnosis

• Palpable contractions

• Blood-stained mucus discharge (show) or watery discharge before 37 weeks

• Cervical dilatation and effacement

• Light a vaginal bleeding

Possible preterm labour

a Light bleeding: takes longer than 5 minutes for a clean pad or cloth to be soaked.

• Palpable contractions

• Blood-stained mucus discharge (show) or watery discharge at or after 37

• Cervical dilatation and effacement

• Light vaginal bleeding

Possible term labour

• Intermittent or constant abdominal pain

• Bleeding after 22 weeks gestation (may be retained in the uterus)

• Shock

• Tense/tender uterus

• Decreased/absent fetal movements

• Fetal distress or absent fetal heart sounds

Abruptio placentae

• Severe abdominal pain (may decrease after rupture)

• Bleeding (intra-abdominal and/or vaginal)

• Shock 

• Abdominal distension/ free fluid 

• Abnormal uterine contour

• Tender abdomen

• Easily palpable fetal parts

• Absent fetal movements and fetal heart sounds 

• Rapid maternal pulse

Ruptured uterus

• Abdominal pain

• Foul-smelling watery vaginal discharge after 22 weeks gestation

• Fever/chills

• History of loss of fluid

• Tender uterus

• Rapid fetal heart rate

• Light vaginal bleeding


• Abdominal pain

• Dysuria

• Increased frequency and urgency of urination

• Retropubic/suprapubic pain


• Dysuria

• Abdominal pain

• Spiking fever/chills

• Increased frequency and urgency of urination

• Retropubic/suprapubic pain

• Loin pain/tenderness

• Tenderness in rib cage

• Anorexia

• Nausea/vomiting

Acute pyelonephritis

• Lower abdominal pain

• Low-grade fever

• Rebound tenderness

• Abdominal distension

• Anorexia

• Nausea/vomiting

• Paralytic ileus

• Increased white blood cells

• No mass in lower abdomen

• Site of pain higher than expected


• Lower abdominal pain

• Fever/chills

• Purulent, foul-smelling lochia

• Tender uterus

• Light vaginal bleeding

• Shock


• Lower abdominal pain and distension

• Persistent spiking fever/ chills

• Tender uterus

• Poor response to antibiotics

• Swelling in adnexa or pouch of Douglas

• Pus obtained upon culdocentesis

Pelvic abscess

• Lower abdominal pain

• Low-grade fever/chills

• Absent bowel sounds

• Rebound tenderness

• Abdominal distension

• Anorexia

• Nausea/vomiting

• Shock


• Abdominal pain

• Adnexal mass on vaginal examination

• Palpable, tender discrete mass in lower abdomen

• Light vaginal bleeding

Ovarian cystb

b Ovarian cysts may be asymptomatic and are sometimes first detected on physical examination.



Preterm delivery is associated with higher perinatal morbidity and mortality. Management of preterm labour consists of tocolysis (trying to stop uterine contractions) or allowing labour to progress. Maternal problems are chiefly related to interventions carried out to stop contractions (see below).

Make every effort to confirm the gestational age of the fetus. 



This intervention aims to delay delivery until the effect of corticosteroids has been achieved (see below).

  • Attempt tocolysis if:

- gestation is less than 37 weeks;

- the cervix is less than 3 cm dilated;

- there is no amnionitis, pre-eclampsia or active bleeding; 

- there is no fetal distress.

  • Confirm the diagnosis of preterm labour by documenting cervical effacement or dilatation over 2 hours. 

  • If less than 37 weeks gestation, give corticosteroids to the mother to improve fetal lung maturity and chances of neonatal survival:

- betamethasone 12 mg IM, two doses 12 hours apart;

- OR dexamethasone 6 mg IM, four doses 6 hours apart.

Note: Do not use corticosteroids in the presence of frank infection.

  • Give a tocolytic drug (Table S-17) and monitor maternal and fetal condition (pulse, blood pressure, signs of respiratory distress, uterine contractions, loss of amniotic fluid or blood, fetal heart rate, fluid balance, blood glucose, etc.).

Note: Do not give tocolytic drugs for more than 48 hours.

If preterm labour continues despite use of tocolytic drugs, arrange for the baby to receive care at the most appropriate service with neonatal facilities. 


Table S-17

 Tocolytic drugsa to stop uterine contractions


Initial Dose

Subsequent Dose

Side Effects and Precautions


10 mg in 1 L IV fluids.  Start IV infusion at 10 drops per minute.

If contractions persist, increase infusion rate by 10 drops per minute every 30 minutes until contractions stop or maternal pulse rate exceeds 120 per minute

If contractions stop, maintain the same infusion rate for at least 12 hours after the last contraction.

If maternal heart rate increases (more than 120 per minute), reduce infusion rate; If the woman is anaemic, use with caution.

If steroids and salbutamol are used, maternal pulmonary oedema may occur. Restrict fluids, maintain fluid balance and stop drug.


100 mg loading dose by mouth or rectum

25 mg every 6 hours for 48 hours

If gestation is more than 32 weeks, avoid use to prevent

premature closure of fetal ductus arteriosus. Do not use for more than 48 hours.

a Alternative drugs include terbutaline, nifedipine and ritodrine. 


  • Allow labour to progress if:

- gestation is more than 37 weeks;

- the cervix is more than 3 cm dilated;

- there is active bleeding; 

- the fetus is distressed, dead or has an anomaly incompatible with survival;

- there is amnionitis or pre-eclampsia.

Note: Avoid delivery by vacuum extraction as the risks of intracranial haemorrhage in the preterm baby  are high. 

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Clinical principles

Rapid initial assessment

Talking with women and their families

Emotional and psychological support


General care principles

Clinical use of blood, blood products and replacement fluids

Antibiotic therapy

Anaesthesia and analgesia

Operative care principles

Normal Labour and childbirth

Newborn care principles

Provider and community linkages



Vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy

Vaginal bleeding in later pregnancy and labour

Vaginal bleeding after childbirth

Headache, blurred vision, convulsions or loss of consciousness, elevated blood pressure

Unsatisfactory progress of Labour

Malpositions and malpresentations

Shoulder dystocia

Labour with an overdistended uterus

Labour with a scarred uterus

Fetal distress in Labour

Prolapsed cord

Fever during pregnancy and labour

Fever after childbirth

Abdominal pain in early pregnancy

Abdominal pain in later pregnancy and after childbirth

Difficulty in breathing

Loss of fetal movements

Prelabour rupture of membranes

Immediate newborn conditions or problems


Paracervical block

Pudendal block

Local anaesthesia for caesaran section

Spinal (subarachnoid) anaesthesia


External version

Induction and augmentation of labour

Vacuum extraction

Forceps delivery

Caesarean section


Craniotomy and craniocentesis

Dilatation and curettage

Manual vacuum aspiration

Culdocentesis and colpotomy


Manual removal of placenta

Repair of cervical tears

Repair of vaginal and perinetal tears

Correcting uterine inversion

Repair of ruptured uterus

Uterine and utero-ovarian artery ligation

Postpartum hysterectomy

Salpingectomy for ectopic pregnancuy



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