Preterm labor is defined as the presence of uterine contractions of sufficient frequency and intensity to effect progressive effacement and dilation of the cervix prior to term gestation (between 20 and 37 wk). Preterm labor precedes almost half of preterm births and preterm birth occurs in approximately 12% of pregnancies and is the leading cause of neonatal mortality in the United States. [1, 2] In addition, preterm birth accounts for 70% of neonatal morbidity, mortality, and health care dollars spent on the neonate, largely due to the 2% of American women delivering very premature infants (< 32 wk).Successful reduction of perinatal morbidity and mortality associated with prematurity may require the implementation of effective risk identification and behavioral modification programs for the prevention of preterm labor; these in turn require both an improved understanding of the psychosocial risk factors, etiology, and mechanisms of preterm labor and programs for accurate identification of pregnant women at risk for premature labor and delivery.In fact, recent evidence suggests that early identification of at-risk gravidas with timely referral for subspecialized obstetrical care may help identify women at risk for preterm labor and delivery and decrease the extreme prematurity (< 32 wk) rate, thereby reducing the morbidity, mortality, and expense associated with prematurity.
ANATOMY : The exact mechanism(s) of preterm labor is largely unknown but is believed to include decidual hemorrhage, (eg, abruption, mechanical factors such as uterine overdistension from multiple gestation or polyhydramnios), cervical incompetence (eg, trauma, cone biopsy), uterine distortion (eg, mullerian duct abnormalities, fibroid uterus), cervical inflammation (eg, resulting from bacterial vaginosis [BV], trichomonas), maternal inflammation/fever (eg, urinary tract infection), hormonal changes (eg, mediated by maternal or fetal stress), and uteroplacental insufficiency (eg, hypertension, insulin-dependent diabetes, drug abuse, smoking, alcohol consumption). Preterm labor may be difficult to diagnose and a potential exists for overtreatment of uterine irritability.Tocolytic agents, while generally safe in appropriate dosages with proper clinical monitoring, have potential morbidity and should only be used after consideration of the risks and benefits of such use. Neonatal morbidity and mortality are greatly affected by gestational age, especially when the pregnancy is less than 28 weeks’ gestation. Tocolysis should be used with caution when the fetus is previable because the expected prolongation of the pregnancy is limited, and the neonate has a minimal chance of survival at less than 23 weeks. The likelihood of survival is further reduced in the presence of significant medical complications, such as intra-amniotic infection (IAI) at these ages.