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Fetal Surgeries and Procedures

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Fetal surgeries and procedures are performed to treat structural and functional abnormalities in developing fetuses. Read to learn more about them.

Written by

Dr. Varshini

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Hussain Shabbir Kotawala

Published At July 20, 2023
Reviewed AtMay 3, 2024

Introduction

Fetal surgery and procedures refer to the various medical interventions that are performed on a developing fetus in the uterus. The primary goal of fetal surgery is to correct structural or functional abnormalities that can lead to health complications after birth. In recent decades, remarkable progress in medical technology and surgical methods has enabled the achievement of previously unimaginable feats in the field of fetal surgeries and procedures, providing hope to parents and their babies facing difficult diagnoses.

What Are the Indications?

Fetal surgery is indicated for fetuses diagnosed with certain congenital conditions that could lead to significant health problems or death after birth. Some conditions may include:

  • Spina Bifida: A spinal condition present at birth that can result in paralysis and other neurological problems.

  • Sacrococcygeal Teratoma (SCT): A growth originating from the tailbone of a developing fetus, which can lead to blockage and additional complications.

  • Lower Urinary Tract Obstruction (LUTO): A condition where there exists a block in the urinary tract, leading to kidney damage and other problems.

  • Congenital Heart Defects: Conditions affecting the structure and function of the heart.

  • Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia (CDH): A condition where a hole in the diaphragm allows organs to move into the chest cavity, potentially causing lung damage.

  • Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS): A condition where blood flows unevenly between twins sharing the same placenta, leading to fluid accumulation and potential heart failure.

What Are the Various Fetal Surgeries and Procedures Available?

There are various fetal surgeries and procedures available to pregnant women, depending on the specific condition of the fetus. Some of the most common types of fetal surgery include:

  • Fetal Shunt Placement: This procedure involves placing a shunt in the fetus to drain excess fluid from the amniotic sac. It is commonly employed to manage hydrocephalus, which is characterized by a buildup of fluid in the brain.

  • Fetal Tissue Biopsy: This procedure involves obtaining a small sample of fetal tissue to diagnose genetic disorders or other conditions. It is performed using a needle inserted through the mother's abdomen.

  • Fetal Blood Transfusion: This procedure involves transfusing blood into the fetus to treat anemia or other blood disorders.

  • Fetal Surgery for Spina Bifida: This involves repairing a defect in the spine of the fetus before birth. It is performed between 19 and 26 weeks of pregnancy.

  • Fetal Surgery for Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia (CDH): This procedure involves repairing a hole in the diaphragm of the fetus to prevent organs from moving into the chest cavity. It is performed between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy.

  • Fetal Laser Surgery: This involves using a laser to treat twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, a condition that occurs when blood flows unevenly between twins sharing the same placenta.

  • Fetal Cardiac Intervention: This procedure involves treating heart defects in the fetus, such as those caused by hypoplastic left heart syndrome.

  • Amniocentesis: Amniocentesis involves obtaining a sample of amniotic fluid to test for genetic or chromosomal abnormalities. During the second trimester of pregnancy, this procedure is conducted to assist parents in anticipating the potential of having a child with a genetic disorder.

  • Fetal Echocardiography: This uses ultrasound technology to evaluate the heart of the fetus. This procedure can detect abnormalities in the structure or function of the heart.

What Are the Benefits?

Fetal surgeries and procedures offer several potential benefits for fetuses diagnosed with certain congenital conditions. These benefits include:

  • Improved Outcomes After Birth: Fetal surgeries and procedures can correct structural or functional abnormalities that could lead to significant health problems or death after birth. By intervening early, doctors can prevent or mitigate these complications, improving the baby's overall health and well-being.

  • Earlier Intervention: Fetal surgeries can be performed before birth, allowing for earlier intervention and treatment. This can lead to better outcomes for babies, as some conditions require prompt treatment to avoid long-term complications.

  • Reduced Need for Postnatal Interventions: Some fetal surgeries and procedures can reduce the need for postnatal interventions, such as shunts or ventilator support. The implementation of fetal surgery for spina bifida has demonstrated a decrease in the requirement for shunts and an enhancement in the child's capacity to walk autonomously.

  • Improved Quality of Life: By correcting structural or functional abnormalities before birth, fetal surgeries can improve the baby's quality of life after birth. For example, fetal surgery for congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) has been shown to improve survival rates and reduce the need for ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) support after birth.

  • Increased Survival Rates: Some fetal surgeries and procedures have been shown to improve survival rates for babies with certain conditions. For example, fetal laser surgery for twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome can prevent the death of one or both twins by equalizing blood flow between them.

What Are the Risks Involved?

Fetal surgeries and procedures can provide hope for families facing life-threatening fetal conditions. However, there are a few risks involved. This includes:

  • Premature Labor: Fetal surgeries and procedures can increase the risk of premature labor and delivery, which can cause complications like respiratory distress syndrome and cerebral palsy.

  • Maternal Complications: Fetal surgeries may increase the risk of complications for the mother, such as bleeding, infection, or damage to organs.

  • Fetal Death: Fetal surgeries and procedures carry a risk of fetal death, either during the procedure or shortly afterward.

  • Need for Additional Interventions: Some fetal surgeries and procedures may require additional interventions after birth, such as a shunt or additional surgery.

  • Long-Term Complications: Some fetal surgeries may have long-term complications, such as scarring or adhesions that could lead to bowel obstruction or infertility.

The specific risks depend on the type of procedure, the stage of pregnancy, and the underlying condition being treated. Under proper medical supervision, these risks can be minimized.

Conclusion

Fetal surgeries and procedures have become an increasingly important area of medicine. These procedures can correct structural or functional abnormalities before birth, leading to improved outcomes after birth and a better quality of life for the baby. As medical technology continues to advance, the field of fetal surgery will likely continue to grow, providing new opportunities for intervention and treatment. By working together, medical professionals can provide families with the support and care they need to navigate this challenging and emotional journey.

Dr. Hussain Shabbir Kotawala
Dr. Hussain Shabbir Kotawala

General Surgery

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spina bifidaamniocentesis
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