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How Pregnancy Can Affect Your Heart Health - Orlando Health

Pregnancy may be one of the more natural feats that can be accomplished by a woman’s body, but that doesn’t mean it comes without risk. Among the many stresses and strains is what happens with the cardiovascular system. The heart is forced to work overtime to deal with physical and hormonal changes, with blood volume increasing 20 to 50 percent. It’s important to understand and recognize warning signs to keep your heart protected and to reduce the risk of life-threatening complications. 

During Pregnancy 

There are several cardiac complications that can develop during pregnancy. If you suspect you are experiencing one of them, it’s important to talk with your doctor. You may need to consult with a cardiologist and an obstetrician who specializes in high-risk pregnancy to ensure a safe delivery for both you and your baby. 

Peripartum cardiomyopathy is a rare condition where heart failure develops during the last month of pregnancy or within five months postpartum. We don’t know what causes it. But symptoms can mimic those of the third trimester such as swelling in the feet and legs, and shortness of breath. Certain patients, including those with multiple pregnancies and those of African descent, are at greatest risk. After pregnancy, the heart usually returns to its normal size and function, but some women continue to have poor left ventricular function and symptoms. 

Preeclampsia, formerly called toxemia, affects up to 8 percent of pregnant women. Preeclampsia occurs when a woman develops high blood pressure, protein in the urine, and often swollen feet, legs, fingers and hands after the twentieth week. Diagnosed by a urine sample taken at most obstetrician visits, symptoms include: 

  • Headache

  • Changes in vision

  • Stomach pain

  • Nausea or vomiting

The condition can lead to seizures (eclampsia), damage to the liver and blood cells (HELLP syndrome), stroke and early birth. Your health care team will monitor you closely and will induce labor at 37 weeks to prevent further problems. 

Pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH) develops in 6 to 8 percent of women during pregnancy. PIH or high blood pressure can be harmful to both mother and baby. It’s related to preeclampsia, with symptoms including high blood pressure, swelling due to fluid retention, and occasionally protein in the urine. 

Gestational diabetes affects 7 to 9 percent of pregnancies, usually around the 24th week. This form of diabetes occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin to control blood sugar during pregnancy, resulting in higher blood sugar (glucose) levels. If you develop this condition, treatment includes careful blood sugar monitoring, diet, exercise and taking insulin, if needed. 

After Pregnancy 

Cardiovascular complications often go away weeks to months after delivery. But for a small but significant percentage of women, the negative effects can linger long after that newborn comes home. And they could reemerge years later. 

For example, women who had preeclampsia are more likely to develop heart and vascular problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. And about half of women who had pregnancy-related diabetes will develop Type 2 diabetes later in life. In addition, research has linked preterm birth, when a baby is born before 37 weeks, to higher risk of maternal cardiovascular disease, cardiac events and related hospitalizations. 

A cardiologist can review your health history, perform a physical exam and order diagnostic tests to check your heart function and the severity and extent of your condition. Reassuringly, most women who develop a heart condition can have a safe delivery and healthy baby.

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