High Blood Pressure in Pregnancy

What to Know About High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy

January 25, 2019

What to Know About High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy

What to Know About High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy
What to Know About High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy

When most people think about high blood pressure and pregnancy, one of the first things that might come to mind is preeclampsia. And while preeclampsia is a blood pressure condition that affects pregnant and sometimes postpartum women, there’s actually a lot more to having high blood pressure than you might think.

We’ve rounded up all the need-to-knows about this common—and highly treatable—condition that affects 5% to 8% of all pregnancies in women ages 20 to 44 across the U.S.

What is considered high blood pressure during pregnancy?

Blood pressure (the force of blood that pushes against the walls of your arteries) is one of the most closely monitored vitals throughout your pregnancy and after delivery. And for good reason: if your blood pressure gets too high, it can put extra stress on your body, leading to health issues for you and for your baby.

In order to diagnose high blood pressure, also called hypertension, your healthcare provider will monitor your blood pressure readings and classify any higher-than-normal readings into one of three categories (a normal blood pressure reading is below 120/80 mm Hg):

  • Elevated blood pressure (120-129/<80): A systolic pressure ranging from 120-129 mm Hg and a diastolic pressure below 80 mm Hg.
  • Stage 1 hypertension (130-139/80-89): A systolic pressure ranging from 130-139 mm Hg or a diastolic pressure ranging from 80-89 mm Hg.
  • Stage 2 hypertension (>140/>90): A systolic pressure of 140 mm Hg or higher or a diastolic pressure of 90 mm Hg or higher.

If you experience any of the higher readings, your doctor will work with you to find the right treatment plan for you. This may involve diet, exercise and medication.

Causes and types of high blood pressure in pregnancy

Researchers are still stumped as to the exact causes of high blood pressure during pregnancy. And while some women will go into pregnancy already dealing with high blood pressure, others develop it sometime over the course of the 40 weeks of pregnancy.

There are four types of high blood pressure in pregnancy:

  • Gestational hypertension. Gestational hypertension is high blood pressure that develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It often causes only a small rise in blood pressure, but in certain cases can be more severe. There are no signs of preeclampsia, such as protein in the urine or signs of other organ damage. Gestational hypertension disappears after you give birth.
  • Chronic hypertension. Chronic hypertension is high blood pressure that you have before you get pregnant or that develops before 20 weeks of pregnancy. Unlike other types of high blood pressure, it won’t go away after you give birth, but it can be managed.
  • Chronic hypertension with superimposed preeclampsia. This condition occurs when chronic hypertension leads to preeclampsia. It develops in women who had chronic hypertension before getting pregnant and then develop worsening high blood pressure and symptoms of preeclampsia such as protein in the urine.
  • Preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is a blood pressure condition that occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy and involves elevated blood pressure readings in conjunction with possible signs of damage in other organs, like the liver and kidneys.

Symptoms of high blood pressure in pregnancy

It’s tough to miss many of the symptoms of pregnancy. (We’re looking at you, swollen ankles and 10 pm cookie cravings!) But signs of hypertension during pregnancy aren’t always so obvious.

Symptoms of high blood pressure in pregnancy range from mild to severe and include:

  • Elevated blood pressure reading. Your doctor checks your blood pressure at every prenatal appointment for a reason; since you often won’t feel any different, getting a blood pressure reading is the only true way to know if you’re developing hypertension. A provider will often look for multiple high readings a few hours apart to confirm a high blood pressure diagnosis.

  • Preeclampsia symptoms. These can include:

    • Protein in your urine (one of the many reasons your doctor is always asking you to pee in a cup during your appointments!)
    • Severe headaches
    • Changes in vision (blurred vision, seeing spots, light sensitivity)
    • Shortness of breath
    • Upper abdominal pain, often under your ribs on the right side.

Don’t wait if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and feel like something might not be right—it’s always worth a call or a visit to your healthcare provider to check in.

Risks of high blood pressure during pregnancy

Although it may be tough to think about the risks to you or your baby if you’re diagnosed with hypertension during your pregnancy, the good news is that many are preventable with the right blood pressure management and treatment.

Risks of high blood pressure during pregnancy for the woman include:

  • Organ damage
  • Future cardiovascular disease
  • Placental abruption

Risks for the baby include:

  • Decreased blood flow to the placenta
  • Growth restriction
  • Premature delivery

How to prevent high blood pressure during pregnancy

It may sound obvious, but taking care of you is one of the best ways to take care of your baby both during and after pregnancy, including when it comes to preventing high blood pressure.

While there’s no surefire way to prevent high blood pressure, keeping up with your prenatal appointments and staying as healthy as possible through diet and exercise are two major things you can do to ward off hypertension.

Since high blood pressure doesn’t always present with obvious symptoms, it’s important to never miss a prenatal or postnatal checkup so your doctor can keep tabs on your blood pressure readings over time and keep an eye out for any red flags.

And although there’s certainly nothing wrong with having a cookie (or two…) throughout your pregnancy, do your best to eat a healthy and well-balanced diet as much as you can.

Eating right and staying active can have a hugely positive impact not only on your blood pressure, but on you and your baby too.

If you do have a high blood pressure during your pregnancy, there are treatments available, from blood pressure medications to increased monitoring, you and your doctor can discuss to help keep you and baby healthy.

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