AJOG: Optimizing the management of acute, prolonged decelerations and fetal bradycardia based on the understanding of fetal pathophysiology

Optimizing the management of acute, prolonged decelerations and fetal bradycardia based on the understanding of fetal pathophysiology

Any acute and profound reduction in fetal oxygenation increases the risk of anaerobic metabolism in the fetal myocardium and, hence, the risk of lactic acidosis. On the contrary, in a gradually evolving hypoxic stress, there is sufficient time to mount a catecholamine-mediated increase in the fetal heart rate to increase the cardiac output and redistribute oxygenated blood to maintain an aerobic metabolism in the fetal central organs. When the hypoxic stress is sudden, profound, and sustained, it is not possible to continue to maintain central organ perfusion by peripheral vasoconstriction and centralization. In case of acute deprivation of oxygen, the immediate chemoreflex response via the vagus nerve helps reduce fetal myocardial workload by a sudden drop of the baseline fetal heart rate. If this drop in the fetal heart rate continues for >2 minutes (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ guideline) or 3 minutes (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence or physiological guideline), it is termed a prolonged deceleration, which occurs because of myocardial hypoxia, after the initial chemoreflex. The revised International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics guideline (2015) considers the prolonged deceleration to be a “pathologic” feature after 5 minutes. Acute intrapartum accidents (placental abruption, umbilical cord prolapse, and uterine rupture) should be excluded immediately, and if they are present, an urgent birth should be accomplished. If a reversible cause is found (maternal hypotension, uterine hypertonus or hyperstimulation, and sustained umbilical cord compression), immediate conservative measures (also called intrauterine fetal resuscitation) should be undertaken to reverse the underlying cause. In reversible causes of acute hypoxia, if the fetal heart rate variability is normal before the onset of deceleration, and normal within the first 3 minutes of the prolonged deceleration, then there is an increased likelihood of recovery of the fetal heart rate to its antecedent baseline within 9 minutes with the reversal of the underlying cause of acute and profound reduction in fetal oxygenation. The continuation of the prolonged deceleration for >10 minutes is termed “terminal bradycardia,” and this increases the risk of hypoxic-ischemic injury to the deep gray matter of the brain (the thalami and the basal ganglia), predisposing to dyskinetic cerebral palsy. Therefore, any acute fetal hypoxia, which manifests as a prolonged deceleration on the fetal heart rate tracing, should be considered an intrapartum emergency requiring an immediate intervention to optimize perinatal outcome. In uterine hypertonus or hyperstimulation, if the prolonged deceleration persists despite stopping the uterotonic agent, then acute tocolysis is recommended to rapidly restore fetal oxygenation. Regular clinical audit of the management of acute hypoxia, including the “the onset of bradycardia to delivery interval,” may help identify organizational and system issues, which may contribute to poor perinatal outcomes.