The history of tocolysis


Correspondence: Professor M. Keirse, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, The Flinders University of South Australia Flinders Medical Centre, GPO Box 2100, Flinders Drive, Bedford Park, SA 4052, Adelaide, Australia.


In 1950, the World Health Organisation (WHO) defined prematurity as a birthweight of 2500 g or less and in 1961 as a gestational age of less than 37 weeks. The time in between marks an era in which there was growing recognition of the importance of gestational age at birth and how to influence it. The latter was facilitated too by the development of tocography, which permitted some semi-objective measurement of uterine contractility. Along with it, came a growing interest in agents that could control uterine contractility beyond the earlier classical approaches of hormones and gastrointestinal spasmolytics. Hence, the early 1960s saw much research interest in agents, such as nylidrine, isoxsuprine, and orciprenaline that could suppress uterine contractility as one of their many beta-agonist properties. Subsequently, two approaches would be used to shift the balance towards uterine function over and above the influence on other bodily functions. One consisted of supplementing these drugs with agents, such as calcium antagonists and beta-receptor blockers that were hoped to suppress non-uterine actions. The other was a search for drugs in the same class with greater uterospecificity and more selective binding to uterine as opposed to other receptors. Neither of these approaches has ever fully fulfilled the hopes that were pinned on them, but they resulted in the availability of a large number of agents to suppress uterine contractility. The advent of prostaglandins as regulators of uterine contractility and the ability to suppress their biosynthesis saw another range of attempts to suppress uterine activity. They included aspirin, sodium salicylate, flufenamic acid, sulindac and indomethacin, but some were clearly based on a defective understanding of how uterine prostaglandin synthesis can be influenced. In the meantime, a flurry of other agents came and went, often more than once, testifying to the ingenuity of clinicians in trying to solve a problem that is poorly understood. Some, such as relaxin and ethanol, came and disappeared. Others, such as calcium antagonists, entered the scene as protectors against the non-uterine effects of other agents, went, and re-entered the scene in their own right. Still others, such as magnesium sulphate, came, lingered around, and became credited with effects in preterm labour that do not depend on affecting uterine contractility. Amidst this all arose the term tocolysis, coined in 1964 by Mosler from the Greek stems ‘τκζ’ and ‘λυɛιν’, to epitomise all of this ingenuity.