Pregnancy, while one of the most joyous times in a woman’s life, is also one of the most physically and physiologically stressful times. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that pregnancy fundamentally changes a woman’s body; some women will gain as much as half of their pre-pregnancy weight during their pregnancies. Others will develop gestational diabetes, pregnancy induced hypertension or, in more severe cases peripartum cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the heart) or kidney failure. During pregnancy, the body increases its blood volume by 50 to better be able to nourish the growing fetus and maintain mama. Most women will “sail” through their pregnancies, labors and deliveries, have healthy children and will “live happily ever after”. Others won’t be so lucky and they or their children will perish from primarily preventable forms of heart disease.
Cardiovascular (heart) disease is a leading cause of death in the United States. A recent article published in Obstetrics and Gynecology reports that researchers in Illinois found that from 2000-2011, nearly 20% of all maternal deaths were heart related, Here is what they found:
- Most of the deaths occurred in the third trimester or within 6 weeks of the post partum period.
- Most of the heart related problems happened in women ages 30-39, while the most severe cases occurred in women over 40.
- Cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart)in pregnancy is a rare cardiac occurrence, is almost exclusively caused by pregnancy and occurs more often in young women, 20-29 years.
- Death from cardiomyopathy is more likely to happen in very young women, less than 20 years old.
- Black women have significantly higher rates of pregnancy related heart disease compared to White or Hispanic women.
- 28% of all of the deaths were potentially preventable.
Yes, you read that last bullet point correctly. Twenty eight percent of the cardiovascular deaths that occurred during or just after pregnancy in the Illinois report were potentially preventable deaths! So what should you, as a Mama on Bedrest do to protect her heart?
- Schedule and maintain your regular prenatal visits. Early detection and early action are the hallmarks of treatment success for any disease, but especially cardiovascular disease during pregnancy.
- Notify your health care provider immediately if you notice any heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, unusual swelling in the hands, feet, face, changes in urine output. Now this may be difficult as you are likely experiencing all of these symptoms as a result of your pregnancy. Suffice it to say that if you have an increase in any of the symptoms or if they suddenly occur where they didn’t previously exist, then consult your health care provider.
- INSIST ON FOLLOW UP AFTER YOU HAVE YOUR BABY!! One of the key points that came out of the points that came out of the Illinois study is that most of the heart disease related deaths occurred after 6 weeks post partum. Many women have their post partum follow up visits with their obstetricians and then don’t return for a year or unless there are other issues. If you had a problem, even a minor problem during your pregnancy, FOLLOW UP FOR UP TO A YEAR POST PARTUM. Many conditions will “flare” with the fluctuation of hormones during the post partum, i.e. get worse, so you want to be closely monitoring for symptoms.
It is imperative that mamas receive comprehensive care of cardiac problems and are fully treated to avoid-or at least mitigate-heart problems in the future. Thankfully not all mamas who have heart problems will die, but many will have life long problems as a result of incomplete care. Be sure to have ongoing follow up and let all subsequent providers know that you experienced heart problems while you were pregnant.
The authors also note that providers must do a better job of
- educating their patients about the signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease
- referring patients immediately to specialists when problems occur
- continuing to monitor their patients’ conditions well into the post partum period, as long as a year post partum.
As this article clearly states, death from cardiovascular complications is very often preventable. Patients and physicians alike must be aware of the signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease and both must have a low threshold for seeking evaluation; patients from their obstetricians, physicians from their specialists colleagues. Finally, it is imperative that women who developed cardiovascular symptoms during or just after pregnancy be evaluated for an extended time in the post partum, often up to one year post partum.
What is it like to have a pregnancy related heart problem? Hear a mamas story.
Have you experienced a heart problem during your pregnancy? Please share your story.
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