Calling labor painful is an understatement at best, and it's not uncommon that the delivering mother experiences tears in the vagina as the baby is emerging. In the past, doctors often helped the process along with an episiotomy, an incision in the perineum (the tissue between the vagina and the anus) that widened the vaginal opening so it was easier for the baby to come out.
An episiotomy was used to prevent vaginal tears and performed only during the final stages of labor. It was thought that if a woman was going to tear, it could be much more severe and difficult to suture back together than if the doctor made a calculated incision. However, this approach assumed a woman would tear during childbirth, and not all women do. But when an episiotomy was performed, the woman then had to heal from the additional physical trauma anyway. This is one of the many reasons doctors no longer rely on, or recommend, episiotomies, except in rare cases.
"Although an episiotomy is considered minor surgery, a cut