Pregnancy and High Blood Pressure

Here are important facts all people should know about pregnancy and high blood pressure.

mother's hand on pregnant belly

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Expectant mothers may often spend a lot of time worrying about potential health problems like down syndrome and other genetic disorders in their unborn children. Yet a serious and more common health condition can harm both mother and child if left untreated or undiagnosed: high blood pressure.

Dr. Allison Devine, ADC OB/GYN, says high blood pressure — hypertension — is a health risk that can be present in women before, during, or after pregnancy.

“Expectant mothers should make sure they fully understand the type of high blood pressure they have to help ensure their own health and safety, as well as their child’s safety,” Dr. Devine said.

Understanding high blood pressure

Blood pressure is defined as the amount of force exerted by the blood against the walls of the arteries. If the blood pressure in a pregnant women becomes too high, it can lead to very serious health risks for both the mother and child, according to Dr. Devine.

“The main health risks of high blood pressure during pregnancy include a decreased flow of blood to the placenta, which can slow the development of the baby and increase the risk of a low birth weight,” Dr. Devine said. “High blood pressure can also cause dangerous internal bleeding in the mother and result in stillbirth.”

High blood pressure problems happen in about 6 percent to 8 percent of all pregnancies — most of them in first-time pregnancies, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Types of high blood pressure

Dr. Devine says there are three different types of high blood pressure than can occur during pregnancy.

One type is called chronic hypertension. If women had high blood pressure before becoming pregnant, developed it during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, or have high blood pressure lasting more than 12 weeks after delivery, it’s considered chronic hypertension.

“Another type is gestational hypertension, when high blood pressure develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy,” Dr. Devine said. “But usually this type of hypertension goes away after delivery.”

She says preeclampsia is the third and most dangerous form of high blood pressure during pregnancy.

Preeclampsia happens when women with chronic or gestational hypertension develop high blood pressure and a protein in the urine after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It can also take place in women with no prior history of high blood pressure.

Preeclampsia can lead to serious and even fatal complications for mother and baby if left undiagnosed, says Dr. Devine.

“Preeclampsia affects the placenta and it can affect the mother’s kidney, liver, and brain,” Dr. Devine said. “It may cause seizures in the mother — called eclampsia — which is the second leading cause of maternal death, and may lead to other complications such as low birth weight, premature birth, and stillbirth.”

Keeping mother and baby healthy

If you do develop hypertension during pregnancy, you may need to take blood pressure medication and have more frequent prenatal doctor visits.

“Some blood pressure medication can’t be prescribed during pregnancy,” said Dr. Devine, “but we do have alternatives that are safe for mother and baby.”

Women with chronic or gestational hypertension can also help control their blood pressure through exercise and reducing sodium, she said.

For preeclampsia, however, there is no proven means of prevention. Most women who develop preeclampsia will be closely monitored to lessen or avoid health problems, said Dr. Devine.

“If you experience persistent headaches, experience blurred vision or other changes in vision, or have upper abdominal pain, these could be indications of preeclampsia and you should check with your physician or call 911 immediately,” she said.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe bed rest if you have preeclampsia. In other cases, early delivery of the baby may be required to protect the health of the mother and child.

“The most important thing you can do for you and your baby is to get early and regular prenatal care,” Dr. Devine said. “It’s the best way to help ensure a safe, happy, and healthy delivery.”