High blood pressure in pregnancy
High blood pressure in pregnancy is a common health condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, between 6% to 8% of pregnant women develop high blood pressure, which is also referred to as gestational hypertension. Fortunately, in some cases, you may be able to prevent complications of high blood pressure before and during pregnancy. If you develop high blood pressure during pregnancy, safe treatment and support from your OB/GYN are available.
What is high blood pressure?
A blood pressure reading contains two numbers represented as a fraction:
1. Systolic pressure measures the pressure of your blood against your arteries when your heart beats. This is the first, or top, number.
2. Diastolic pressure measures the pressure of your blood against your arteries between heart beats. This is the second, or bottom, number.
According to the American Heart Association, a normal blood pressure reading is less than 120/80. Elevated blood pressure is a top number between 120-129 and a bottom number less than 80. High blood pressure readings start at 130-139/80-89. A reading greater than or equal to 160/110 is considered severe and requires immediate medical attention.
You're at a greater risk of having a high-risk pregnancy if you have high blood pressure before getting pregnant, but you can still develop it for the first time during or after pregnancy.
High blood pressure risks during pregnancy
Having high blood pressure during pregnancy can lead to:
Less blood flow to the placenta. This may cause
the baby to receive less oxygen and nutrients, which may result in growth
restriction, low birth weight, or premature birth.
Future heart or cardiovascular disease
Injury to other organs, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver
Placental abruption, a condition in which the placenta detaches from the uterine wall
Seizures or stroke
Forms of pregnancy-related high blood pressure
Hypertensive disorders in pregnancy include:
Chronic hypertension, which is high blood pressure either before your pregnancy or before 20 weeks of pregnancy. Women with chronic hypertension can develop preeclampsia.
Gestational hypertension, which is high blood pressure that develops at week 20 of pregnancy or later. Gestational hypertension typically goes away when the baby is delivered. However, women who develop this condition are at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure later in life.
Preeclampsia, a sudden development of high blood pressure after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Preeclampsia may be accompanied by protein in the urine and is associated with damage to other organ systems, including the kidneys, liver, blood, and brain. Untreated preeclampsia can lead to serious — even fatal — complications for mother and baby. If seizures occur with preeclampsia, this is known as eclampsia. Eclampsia requires immediate medical attention.
Signs and symptoms of high blood pressure
The most obvious indicator of high blood pressure is a reading of 140/90 or higher. Other warning signs and symptoms of hypertensive disorder in pregnancy include:
- Abdominal pain, particularly in the upper stomach
- Difficulty breathing
- Nausea or vomiting
- Swelling in the face or hands
- Vision changes, including blurry vision and seeing spots
- Weight gain
The risk of high blood pressure doesn't disappear after the baby is born. Continue watching out for the above symptoms for at least six weeks after you deliver. This is because you are still at risk for developing another dangerous form of high blood pressure known as postpartum preeclampsia even if your blood pressure was normal throughout your pregnancy.
Postpartum preeclampsia is a rare condition that develops after childbirth. It causes a spike in blood pressure or too much protein in the urine. If you develop postpartum preeclampsia, it will generally appear within the first few days after delivery. It can also happen up to six weeks after having your baby.
Though rare, if left untreated, this disease can cause stroke, seizures, and serious organ damage.
Hemolysis elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count (HELLP) syndrome is a rare but serious, life-threatening emergency linked to preeclampsia. HELLP syndrome is named for the three issues it causes:
- Hemolysis, which is a breakdown of red blood cells
- Elevated liver enzymes, which typically indicates liver damage or inflammation
- Low platelet counts
If left untreated, women who develop HELLP syndrome could experience seizures, fatal liver damage, or stroke.
Call your OB/GYN if you experience any symptoms of a hypertensive disorder during pregnancy or soon after childbirth.
If you're planning to get pregnant, the best thing you can do to prevent high blood pressure is keep it under control before your pregnancy. Eating healthy, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight can help keep blood pressure in the normal zone. In fact, the American Heart Association says exercise during pregnancy may reduce your risk of gestational hypertension by 30% and your risk of preeclampsia by 40%.
Low-dose aspirin may reduce your risk of pregnancy-related high blood pressure, but always check with your provider before taking any new medications or supplements.
If you develop high blood pressure during your pregnancy, don't stress. Treating high blood pressure with medication during pregnancy is safe and won't harm your developing baby. You'll need to visit your OB/GYN more often to keep track of your blood pressure and your urine for protein development. Your provider will also monitor your baby's growth and heart rate.
If you're concerned about high blood pressure in pregnancy, request an appointment with Reid Health OB/GYN.