There are many ways that pregnancy changes a woman’s body, but the stresses that it puts on the heart and circulation system mean that women with heart conditions need to proceed carefully.
“When a woman is pregnant, her cardiac output, or the work that the heart does, goes up by as much as 40 percent, so the strain on the heart is much greater,” says Jay Fisher, M.D., Beaumont OB-GYN.
“If a woman has undiagnosed heart disease or a heart defect, this is the first time that that may show or symptoms may occur.”
Because the heart works harder to deliver blood to the fetus, the risk of suffering a heart attack goes up during pregnancy, though it remains relatively low for most people.
Complicating things is the fact that many women are waiting until they’re older to have children. “The risk of having these problems increases as women get older as well,” Dr. Fisher says.
Heart Problems During Pregnancy
Women who have underlying heart disease or heart defects often are unaware of it, and their first diagnosis is upon pregnancy. If the woman’s doctor knows about the problems in advance, it’s much easier to safely manage the pregnancy - either without the use of medications, or with medications that are safe with pregnancy, Dr. Fisher says.
Heart problems might also mean doctors will need to deliver the baby via C-section instead of via vaginal birth, he adds.
Preeclampsia is a condition that occurs only during pregnancy and affects somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of all pregnancies. Characterized by severe high blood pressure and protein in the urine, this condition is serious cases can lead to seizure and liver dysfunction in the mother, and growth restrictions and other complications for the fetus, or even stillbirth.
The condition, which occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy, is more common among women who suffer from high blood pressure, are obese or have diabetes. The risk can often be minimized by treating high blood pressure, advises Dr. Fisher.
What to do?
If you know you have a heart condition, have a family history of it, or display risk factors like high blood pressure or diabetes, make an appointment to see your family doctor or provider who’ll handle your pregnancy. And focus on maintaining an ideal weight, follow a healthy diet and learn ways to treat your high blood pressure.
“Those are all things that can significantly decrease the risk of complications during pregnancy,” Dr. Fisher says.