Birth injury is shockingly common – so why aren't we talking about it?

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 Photo: Getty Images

We all know that childbirth isn't an entirely risk free process. However, given that we are fortunate enough to live in both the 21st century and a developed country, you would think that birth related injuries were minimal.

But according to some confronting new research commissioned by Medibank, injuries resulting from vaginal births are actually very common. 

Researchers interviewed 1025 Australian women who had given birth vaginally in the last five years, discovering that a whopping 74 per cent suffered a birth-related injury.

The researchers also discovered that childbirth-related injuries and conditions are more prevalent in younger women, with those aged between 18 and 29 most likely to experience perineal tears, pelvic pain, nerve damage, rectal incontinence and fistula.

Meanwhile, conditions like pelvic floor dysfunction and urinary incontinence are more commonly seen in women aged 35 and over.

On top of this, as many as 62 per cent of mothers are still experiencing symptoms a year after the delivery.

Put in perspective, that means that more than half of the women in my mothers group were still reeling from the birth at their child's first birthday party. And yet many choose to keep quiet.

Perhaps most worrying though is the fact that as many as 20 per cent of women delayed seeking treatment for their injury, which Medibank medical director Dr Kevin Cheng blames on the stigma attached to birth-related injury.

"The research found many women do not feel comfortable discussing their injuries," he said.

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"That's why we feel it's important to raise awareness and help provide an environment where women feel less isolated and more comfortable to share what they're going through."

So why do women find it hard to speak up about birth-related injuries? Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realise that discussing our genitalia with our friends, partner or even a medical professional is embarrassing. We are brought up to keep our private parts private, and so when it comes to discussing birth injuries (or other gynaecological concerns) speaking up is hard.

Additionally, as Dr Cheng notes, childbirth can also be a sensitive topic. Particularly when it didn't go as planned.

So what can we do to better support women who have experienced a birth injury? Dr Cheng says that we can start by raising awareness.

"Childbirth-related injuries and conditions are very common and there's no reason for women to suffer in silence," he notes.

"By raising awareness of how common these injuries and conditions are, we hope to encourage those living with an injury or condition to feel less alone, and if they haven't already, seek medical treatment for persisting symptoms."

Likewise, pregnant women might feel better prepared for the possibility of a birth-related injury if they were more informed. Dr Cheng says that having a better understanding of the range of injuries that can occur can make it easier for women to speak up if it happens to them.

So is there anything women can do to reduce their chances of suffering an injury? Dr Cheng says that there isn't a simple solution, but there are some good strategies to try.

"These include regular exercise to optimise muscle tone and blood flow to the perineum, pelvic floor exercisesperineal massage, and certain positions for birthing," he explains. 

He also notes that birthing in water or having an episiotomy can reduce the chances of an injury. "Expectant mothers should discuss with their antenatal carers about their particular pregnancy, especially if prior injuries and conditions have occurred in the past," he says.

With better awareness and an open dialogue, mums can get the help they need to heal and stop suffering in silence.