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Blood Pressure and Pregnancy

Being pregnant can be an exciting but stressful journey. A mother must not only be aware of her health choices and their lasting effects on her body, but she also has to consider the additional impact those choices might have on her developing child. For women who are not only expecting but are also struggling with high blood pressure, this journey can become downright scary without all the facts. High blood pressure, medically known as hypertension, is when the force of blood being pushed against the blood vessel walls is too strong. If left untreated, high blood pressure can cause a mother and her baby long-term harm before and after delivery. If you are pregnant and struggling with high blood pressure, below are information and tips on what you can do to protect yourself and your child.

Doctor treating pregnant patient lying in her hospital room.

What is high blood pressure?

High blood pressure issues can come at all stages of the pregnancy. Your doctor or nurse will check if you have high blood pressure by wrapping a band or cuff around your upper arm and pumping air into it to squeeze your arm and measure the amount of pressure your blood has when pushing back. This measurement will come back as two numbers. The top number is the pressure when your heart gets tight or contracts, and the bottom number is the pressure when your heart relaxes. Normal blood pressure is 119/79 or lower. High blood pressure is when the top number is 140 or higher, or when the bottom number is 90 or higher.

Types of high blood pressure during pregnancy

When pregnant, you can have different types of high blood pressure, depending on when it starts. Chronic hypertension is high blood pressure that started before a mother became pregnant or started before week 20 of her pregnancy. Gestational hypertension is high blood pressure that started after week 20 of her pregnancy. Both of these types of high blood pressure can develop into a condition called preeclampsia, where a pregnant woman’s organs might not be working properly or damaged after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Untreated preeclampsia can lead to many larger health problems for a mother and her baby including:

  • Placenta separation from the uterus
  • Lack of oxygen and nutrients for the fetus
  • Premature birth
  • Stillbirth
  • Low baby birth weight
  • Kidneys, liver, or brain damage
  • Higher risk for heart attack or stroke
  • Seizures or coma
  • Damage to the liver and blood cells known as HELLP syndrome

How to treat preeclampsia

Keeping yourself healthy throughout your pregnancy is the best way to avoid preeclampsia. If you have high blood pressure and are planning a pregnancy, see your medical provider for a check-up to learn what you can to do to keep it under control. Once pregnant, be sure to do the following throughout your pregnancy:

  • Go to all your prenatal appointments.
  • Take your blood pressure medication as prescribed.
  • Stay physically active.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Avoid smoking, alcohol and non-prescribed drugs.

If you do develop preeclampsia, don’t worry. Delivering the baby can often cure preeclampsia. Your provider might suggest delivering the baby before your due date to avoid complications. When making a decision about early delivery, your provider will consider how severe the preeclampsia is and what are the potential risks to you and your baby. Typically, if you are more than 37 weeks pregnant, your provider will likely want to deliver the baby. If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, your provider will closely monitor you and your baby with blood and urine tests, ultrasounds, and heart rate monitoring. Your provider may prescribe medicines to control your blood pressure and to prevent seizures.

High blood pressure during pregnancy can seriously affect the health of you and your child if left untreated. Be sure to get tested for preeclampsia right away if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms after week 20 of your pregnancy:

  • Severe headaches
  • Changes in vision, including temporary loss of vision, blurred vision or light sensitivity
  • Upper stomach pain, usually under your ribs on the right side
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • If you have any questions about high blood pressure and pregnancy, please call your provider right away. The more you learn about your pregnancy risks, the more power you have to protect yourself and your baby.

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