Changing incidence of anal sphincter tears in four Nordic countries through the last decades

Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2009 Sep;146(1):71-5. doi: 10.1016/j.ejogrb.2009.04.033. Epub 2009 May 30.


Objectives: Anal sphincter rupture is a serious complication of a vaginal delivery. A considerable number of women suffer permanent anal incontinence after this type of injury. The incidence of sphincter tears is believed to have increased over several decades in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, but there seem to be significant differences in the incidence rates among these countries. The aim of this study is to compare frequency of anal sphincter tears among the four Nordic countries, and to discuss the possible reasons for the development.

Study design: Ecological register study. Anal sphincter ruptures are registered as third and fourth degree perineal tears in the national birth and hospital registries in the Nordic countries. Data from these registries were sampled from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The incidences of anal sphincter ruptures were calculated as percentages of all vaginal deliveries and caesarean sections were excluded. The test of relative proportions, Chi-square and linear regression modelling were used to study the difference between countries and time trends.

Results: The frequency of anal sphincter rupture was significantly higher in three countries, Denmark 3.6%, Norway 4.1% and Sweden 4.2%, compared to Finland 0.6%. The trend was clearly increasing from the early 1970s in all countries.

Conclusions: There is a significant difference in the Nordic countries in the incidence of anal sphincter tears and a significant increment in the incidence over three decades. Our hypothesis is that change in the routines during labour may be one reason for this increment. Higher episiotomy frequency in Finland may be one contributing reason. We assume that there has been a change in the conduct of labour during the last decades, and protecting the perineum may have lost its importance in the three Nordic countries, while the classic method of protecting perineum is still in use in Finland.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anal Canal / injuries*
  • Delivery, Obstetric / adverse effects*
  • Delivery, Obstetric / methods
  • Denmark / epidemiology
  • Episiotomy / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Finland / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Lacerations / complications
  • Lacerations / epidemiology*
  • Norway / epidemiology
  • Obstetric Labor Complications / epidemiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Registries
  • Sweden / epidemiology