BACKGROUND: Third- and fourth-degree tears are associated with significant pain, discomfort and impact on quality of life and intimate relationships. Australian women experience comparatively higher rates of third- and fourth-degree tears relative to countries of similar economic development. AIMS: We aimed to conduct a comprehensive review of the literature, published over the past five years, to identify the best ways to prevent and manage third- and fourth-degree perineal tears in Australian maternity centres. MATERIALS AND METHODS: We searched the literature using the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, EMBASE, MEDLINE, Maternity and Infant Care Database and Google Scholar for articles published since 2013 using key search terms. A review of reviews was undertaken given the extensive amount of literature on this topic. RESULTS: Twenty-six systematic reviews were identified. The most common risk factors reported in the literature for third- and fourth-degree tears included primiparity, mother’s ethnicity, large for gestational age infants and certain interventions used in labour and birth, such as instrumental deliveries. Preventive practices with varying degrees of effectiveness and often dependant on parity included: antenatal perineal massage, different maternal birthing positions, water births, warm compresses, protection of the perineum and episiotomy for instrumental births. CONCLUSIONS: Third- and fourth-degree perineal tears are associated with immediate and long-term implications for women and health systems. Evidence-based approaches can reduce the number of women who sustain a severe perineal tear and alleviate the associated disease burden for those who do.
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