PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
There are three varieties:
- Overt cord prolapse - if the presenting part of the fetus does not fit the pelvis snugly after membrane rupture, there is a risk that the umbilical cord can slip past and present at the cervix or descend into the vagina. This is known as overt cord prolapse. It represents an acute obstetric emergency, as prolapse exposes the cord to intermittent compression compromising the fetal circulation. Depending on its duration and degree of compression, fetal hypoxia, brain damage and even death can occur. Exposure of the umbilical cord to air causes irritation and cooling, resulting in vasospasm of the cord vessels.
- Occult cord prolapse - where the umbilical cord lies alongside the presenting part.
- Funic presentation - where the cord can be felt to prolapse below the presenting part before membranes have ruptured. The cord may slip to one side of the head and disappear as the membranes rupture.
The overall incidence of overt prolapsed cord is between 1 and 6/1,000 deliveries.
Overt cord prolapse occurs in more than 1% breech deliveries:
- 0.5% cephalic and frank breech presentations.
- 5% complete breech.
- 15% footling breech.
Transverse lie is associated with a risk of cord prolapse as high as 20%.
The incidence of occult prolapse is unknown but 50% of monitored labours show fetal heart rate changes suggesting umbilical cord compression. This is usually transitory and relieved by changing the mother's position.
- Low birthweight (<2.5 kg).
- Abnormal presentations (breech, oblique, transverse, unstable lie).
- Fetal congenital abnormality.
- Cephalopelvic disproportion.
- Pelvic tumours.
- Low-lying placenta or other abnormal placentation.
- Multiple births (2nd twin is at particular risk).
- High fetal station.
- Long umbilical cord.
- Obstetric interventions including amniotomy (before presenting part is engaged), use of scalp electrode or intrauterine pressure catheter and attempted external cephalic or internal podalic version.
- Abdominal examination: an ill-fitting or non-engaged presenting part should alert one to the possibility of cord prolapse.
- Vaginal examination (VE) - examine for the cord at every VE during labour and specifically after rupture of membranes if risk factors:
- With an overt prolapse, the cord can be seen protruding from the introitus or loops of cord can be palpated within the vaginal canal. If the cord is pulsating, the fetus is alive.
- Occult prolapses are rarely felt on pelvic examination and the only indication may be fetal heart rate changes.
- With a funic presentation, loops of cord are palpated through the membrane.
Whilst it is generally important to avoid digital examination of women in preterm labour, suspicion of cord prolapse is an important exception and speculum and/or digital examination should be swiftly undertaken in these circumstances.
- Whilst the fetus remains in good condition, variable fetal heart rate decelerations are seen during uterine contractions, which promptly return to normal after a contraction subsides.
- With prolonged and complete compression, bradycardia occurs.
- With deteriorating fetal status, activity diminishes and eventually stops.
Have a high index of suspicion for cord prolapse, particularly if fetal monitoring changes occur soon after rupture of membranes, whether spontaneous or with amniotomy.
Routine antenatal ultrasound is not adequately sensitive to detect cord presentation. Most suspected cord presentations do not develop into a cord prolapse at delivery.
Loops of cord in front of the presenting part can be visualised using colour Doppler studies. This is not routinely done but can be used to examine women serially at high risk.
Treat a prolapsed cord as an acute obstetric emergency.
- With an overt prolapse:
- If the fetus is viable, place the mother in the knee-chest position (patient facing the bed, chest level to bed, knees tucked under chest, pelvis and buttocks elevated) or head-down tilt in the left lateral position and apply upward pressure against the presenting part to lift the fetus away from the prolapsed cord. This can be done manually (gloved hand/2 fingers pushing upwards against the presenting part or once the presenting part is above the pelvic brim, using continuous suprapubic pressure in an upwards direction) or by filling the urinary bladder.
- Manual replacement of the prolapsed cord above the presenting part is not currently recommended. Avoid handling the cord outside the vagina, as this induces vasospasm.
- Proceed to emergency Caesarean section as soon as possible.
- If available, give terbutaline 0.25 mg subcutaneously to reduce contractions when there are persistent fetal heart rate trace abnormalities, despite attempts to prevent cord compression manually, and there may be delays in achieving delivery.
- Only proceed with vaginal delivery if delivery is imminent, the cervix is fully dilated and there are no contra-indications.
This can be expedited with episiotomy/vacuum extraction or forceps.
- Ensure resuscitation is available for the baby post-delivery.
- If the fetus has died, deliver in the manner that is safest for the woman.
- If an occult prolapse is suspected:
- Place the mother in the left lateral position.
- If the fetal heart rate returns to normal, allow labour to continue with the mother receiving O2 and fetal heart rate being continuously monitored.
- If the fetal heart rate remains abnormal, expedite a rapid Caesarean section.
- With funic presentation, a decision needs to be made between prompt elective Caesarean section prior to membrane rupture or artificial rupture of membranes (AROM) with full preparations for an emergency Caesarean section, in case the cord does become an overt prolapse on rupture.
In the community, cord prolapse is associated with a tenfold increase in perinatal mortality rate, compared with that occurring in hospital.
- Arrange 999 ambulance transfer to the nearest consultant-led obstetric unit for delivery, unless spontaneous vaginal delivery is assessed as imminent by a competent professional's VE. Even then, still ensure urgent transport is on its way in case delivery is delayed or the baby requires resuscitation.
- Advise knee-chest, face-down position whilst awaiting the ambulance.
- Elevate the presenting part whilst awaiting transfer and during transfer to hospital.
- Use the left lateral position for transfer in the ambulance.
The perinatal mortality rate (associated with cord prolapse) is 91/1,000. Prematurity and congenital abnormality are underlying factors in many cases. Even congenitally normal, full-term babies can die as a consequence of cord prolapse - home birth and delay in transfer to hospital have been identified as particular risks in these cases.
The most common serious morbidities associated with cord prolapse relate to asphyxia: hypoxic brain injury and cerebral palsy. There are few long-term studies looking at long-term sequelae of cord prolapse.
- Consider admission of all pregnant women with transverse, oblique or unstable lie from 37 + 6 weeks of gestation. Cord prolapses occurring in hospital have better outcomes than those occurring within the community. Advise these women that they will require rapid assessment if they start labour or have a spontaneous rupture of membranes and should seek help as soon as possible.
- Similarly, admit women with premature rupture of membranes and a non-cephalic presentation.
- Avoid artificial rupture of membranes (AROM) where possible. If an AROM is performed with a mobile presenting part, ensure arrangements have been put in place for an immediate emergency section should a cord prolapse occur.
- Whenever a VE or other obstetric procedure is performed following rupture of membranes with a high presenting part, avoid any upward pressure on the presenting part.
- Treat high-risk patients with constant fetal monitoring during delivery.
Further reading & references
- Umbilical Cord Prolapse; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (November 2014)
- Umbilical cord prolapse, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (April 2008)
- Uygur D, Kis S, Tuncer R, et al; Risk factors and infant outcomes associated with umbilical cord prolapse. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2002 Aug;78(2):127-30.
- Dilbaz B, Ozturkoglu E, Dilbaz S, et al; Risk factors and perinatal outcomes associated with umbilical cord prolapse. Arch Gynecol Obstet. 2006 May;274(2):104-7. Epub 2006 Mar 15.
- Usta IM, Mercer BM, Sibai BM; Current obstetrical practice and umbilical cord prolapse. Am J Perinatol. 1999;16(9):479-84.
- Ezra Y, Strasberg SR, Farine D; Does cord presentation on ultrasound predict cord prolapse? Gynecol Obstet Invest. 2003;56(1):6-9. Epub 2003 Jul 14.
- Chamberlain G, Steer P; ABC of labour care: unusual presentations and positions and multiple pregnancy. BMJ. 1999 May 1;318(7192):1192-4.
- Managing Complications in Pregnancy and Childbirth, World Health Organization
- Murphy DJ, MacKenzie IZ; The mortality and morbidity associated with umbilical cord prolapse. Br J Obstet Gynaecol. 1995 Oct;102(10):826-30.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Chloe Borton
Dr Hayley Willacy