Placental Insufficiency: What To Know About This Pregnancy Complication

What Is Placental Insufficiency? What To Know About This Pregnancy Complication

April 16, 2021 Updated April 19, 2021

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Real talk: There are many different aspects of pregnancy that we try not to think about too much. It’s one thing to make peace with the fact you’re growing another human inside of you, but other things still feel like something out of science fiction. Like pregnancy edema, which can lead to cankles so swollen they’ll haunt your nightmares. Or take the placenta. Here we have an entirely new organ that forms inside another one of your organs and is somehow capable of making sure the fetus gets the nutrients, hormones, and oxygen it needs, as well as eliminating the waste in there. It’s wild. But the placenta isn’t always up for the job. A pregnancy complication called placental insufficiency (also known as placental dysfunction or uteroplacental vascular insufficiency) can occur.

While we understand your inclination to panic, don’t stress just yet. Here’s what to know about placental insufficiency, including what happens in the third trimester and possible pregnancy outcomes.

What is placental insufficiency?

Placental insufficiency is pretty much what it sounds like: when the placenta does not develop properly or ends up damaged. This rare but serious pregnancy complication doesn’t have a standard definition or set of conditions. However, it generally involves a scenario in which the placenta cannot support the developing fetus, according to Mount Sinai Hospital. In most cases, this is because the placenta can’t deliver an adequate supply of nutrients and oxygen.

Additionally, MedlinePlus reports that an insufficient placenta:

  • May have an abnormal shape
  • May not grow big enough (more likely if you are carrying twins or other multiples)
  • Does not attach correctly to the surface of the womb
  • Breaks away from the surface of the womb or bleeds prematurely

How do you know if you have placental insufficiency?

One of the tricky parts about placental insufficiency is that there are no apparent signs or symptoms. There are, however, certain conditions like preeclampsia that can cause placental insufficiency and have a set of symptoms of their own. Another example is placental abruption, which can cause vaginal bleeding or preterm labor contractions.

The most common way people find out about having placental insufficiency is through their regular prenatal examination appointments — especially during ultrasounds and when the doctor measures the size of your growing uterus. Your doctor will also order lab tests to check the fetus’s activity and health, as well as the amount of amniotic fluid in the placenta.

What causes placental insufficiency?

Several factors — both social habits and occurrences during pregnancy — can cause or contribute to placental insufficiency. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • Going past your due date
  • High blood pressure during pregnancy (called preeclampsia)
  • Medical conditions that increase the mother’s chances of blood clots
  • Smoking
  • Taking cocaine or other drugs
  • Certain medicines

Can you improve placental insufficiency?

The most effective way of improving placental insufficiency is limiting any risk factors within your control, like avoiding smoking, alcohol consumption, and other recreational drugs. And while there’s no cure or therapeutic treatment for placental insufficiency, doing things like resting as much as possible, having a healthy pregnancy meal plan, staying hydrated, cutting down on caffeine, and keeping up with your prenatal care may help.

What are the possible outcomes of placental insufficiency?

Problems with the placenta could mean the fetus doesn’t develop as it’s supposed to, resulting in it not being able to grow normally, difficulties with heart function, and struggling during labor. While there is no cure or treatment for placental insufficiency, it’s more likely to have a better outcome if your healthcare provider makes the diagnosis in the second trimester. If reduced fetal development continues into the third trimester, it can result in congenital disabilities, premature birth, and low birth weight.