Out of all the problems you need to look out for during pregnancy, high blood pressure tops the list.
That’s because it comes along with a whole host of complications that can be life-threatening to you and your baby.
However, high blood pressure complications such as preeclampsia sometimes have no symptoms. Even if you had no prior problems, your blood pressure can shoot up without warning. That’s why monitoring it during pregnancy is critical.
In this post, we’re discussing why high blood pressure is dangerous in pregnancy and how you can help prevent it.
What is High Blood Pressure?
As you probably know, high blood pressure, also called hypertension, is common both for pregnant women and the general population. It happens when your arteries’ blood pressure rises, meaning that your heart needs to work harder to pump blood.
What is considered high blood pressure during pregnancy? It’s broken up into a few different stages: Elevated blood pressure, stage 1 and 2 hypertension and gestational hypertension. Generally, your healthcare provider will monitor your blood pressure throughout your pregnancy. If it’s higher than normal and goes untreated, it often progresses and gets worse.
- Elevated Blood Pressure— Elevated blood pressure is considered a systolic pressure from 120-129 mm Hg and a diastolic pressure below 80 mm Hg. This isn’t yet considered hypertension, but your doctor will advise you to take steps to try to keep it under control.
- Stage 1 Hypertension— Considered a systolic pressure of 130-139 mm Hg or a diastolic pressure of 80-89 mm Hg.
- Stage 2 Hypertension— A more severe stage of hypertension. Considered a systolic pressure of 140 mm Hg or above or a diastolic pressure of 90 mm Hg or above.
- Gestational Hypertension— After 20 weeks, you can be diagnosed with gestational hypertension. This happens when your blood pressure goes over 140/90 mm Hg more than twice, with each reading at least 4 hours apart (with no signs of organ damage).
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in every 12-17 women experiences high blood pressure during pregnancy. In fact, the problem has become more common.
High Blood Pressure in Pregnancy: 5 Complications
For the general population, high blood pressure is a problem that can lead to many complications. However, for the mom-to-be, it poses even more pressing threats. If not controlled, high blood pressure may lead to the following.
Preeclampsia is considered high blood pressure with signs of organ damage (usually the liver and kidneys). The condition usually starts after the 20th week even though the woman’s blood pressure was normal before. It can have serious and life-threatening consequences for you and your baby. It may require labor induction so you can recover and your baby has better chances. If you are diagnosed early on in your pregnancy when it’s too early to deliver, you’ll need to weigh tough decisions. Your baby needs more time to develop and survive, but that could put yourself at serious risk too. Although rare, preeclampsia can also start after you’ve given birth.
If preeclampsia isn’t managed, it can become more severe and involve seizures. This is called eclampsia. Unfortunately, there’s no warning signs about which preeclampsia patients will have their condition worsen. Because the risk is so serious, women who have eclampsia need to deliver, even if the baby isn’t ready.
#3 Placental Abruption
Women with preeclampsia have a higher risk of placental abruption. This happens when your placenta detaches from your inner uterus wall before delivery. Since this can cause severe bleeding, it can be life-threatening for you and your baby.
#4 Preterm Delivery
When your blood pressure gets high, it becomes harder for your baby to get the oxygen and nutrients she needs to develop. For this reason, it can lead to preterm delivery.
High blood pressure puts more stress on your blood vessels, making them more narrow and stiffer. This damage can make blood clots more likely, making strokes caused by clots more likely too.
Signs of High Blood Pressure and Preeclampsia
The best way to know if you have high blood pressure or preeclampsia is to check your blood pressure. Your doctor will do this during regular in-person check-ups. However, you can also do this at home (more on this below).
Other than high blood pressure, preeclampsia doesn’t always have symptoms, which can make it dangerous.
If a woman does have symptoms, she may experience:
- Severe and persisting headaches
- Vision problems, like blurred or vision loss or light sensitivity
- Upper, right abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Shortness of breath
If you’ve taken your blood pressure at home and it reads high, contact your doctor. If it’s serious and/or accompanied by other symptoms, seek immediate medical care.
How to Prevent High Blood Pressure in Pregnancy
The best way to prevent high blood pressure during pregnancy is to tackle it before you conceive. Talk to your doctor about making a plan to control your blood pressure. Although it’s not completely preventable, making lifestyle changes before pregnancy helps limit risk.
Whether you’re trying to control blood pressure before or during pregnancy, your doctor may recommend:
- Attending regular prenatal appointments so your doctor can check your blood pressure
- Monitoring your blood pressure at home
- Getting regular exercise (check out: 11 Easy and Super Fun Pregnancy Exercise Ideas That You’ll Actually Do)
- Eating a balanced diet (check out: 9 Life-Altering Healthy Pregnancy Meal Hacks If You HATE Cooking)
- Limiting salt intake
- Staying hydrated
- Reducing emotional stress, depression or anxiety (may directly or indirectlylead to preeclampsia).
- Avoiding smoking or drinking (which you should be avoiding during pregnancy anyway)
Unfortunately, there’s no sure-fire way to prevent high blood pressure during pregnancy. Factors put some women more at risk:
- First time giving birth
- Giving birth to multiples
- Using in-vitro fertilization
- Over age 40
- Personal or family history of preeclampsia
- Chronic high blood pressure
- Chronic kidney disease
- History of thrombophilia
- Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
How to Check for High Blood Pressure at Home
During pregnancy, it’s a good idea to monitor your blood pressure at home. With an increase in phone and video-call appointments during COVID-19, there may be larger gaps in your in-person checkups.
Unfortunately, blood pressure can rise quickly. Although the problem can develop slowly, it can also appear out-of-the-blue without any prior problems. That’s why monitoring it frequently, even if there’s no “reason” to be worried, is a good idea. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women with chronic high blood pressure or women at risk for preeclampsia have a cuff at home.
To take your blood pressure at home, you’ll first need to buy a cuff. Just like the doctor’s office, these devices squeeze your arm to determine your blood pressure and display it on the screen. Some cuffs are automatic, meaning that the cuff inflates itself. And some are manual, meaning that you need to pump a ball to inflate the cuff. Since models work differently, read your brand’s instructions to learn the correct use. Another idea is to bring it into your next checkup so your doctor can share pointers. Learning how to use it hands-on can make your result more accurate.
The top number (systolic) represents the pressure when your heart contracts and pumps. The bottom number (diastolic) represents the pressure when your heart fills with blood. If you have any questions or concerns about your reading, contact your doctor. If you notice your blood pressure rising, you should alert him or her of that too.
Depending on your risk level, your doctor can recommend how often you should use the cuff. If you’re not high risk, you may simply use it periodically between in-person appointments to ensure you’re still healthy. In any case, using a blood pressure cuff at home is NOT a replacement for a doctor’s visit and should not be used to diagnose medical issues.
Summary on High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy
Although high blood pressure should be avoided at any time, it carries different risks during pregnancy. High blood pressure can lead to complications such as preeclampsia, eclampsia, preterm delivery, placental abruption and even stoke. Since these can all be serious conditions, this is why your doctor takes your blood pressure during each check-up.
However, some people also choose to purchase a cuff to use at home between appointments. When used correctly, this can alert you of the problem before your next scheduled visit. This is a particularly good idea for those at a higher risk, such as those with chronic blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and other conditions. Although there’s no way to 100% prevent preeclampsia, lifestyle changes can go a long way. That includes eating healthy, getting regular exercise, staying hydrated and trying to minimize stress.
P.S. Have you used a fetal doppler yet? These handheld devices allow you to hear your baby before she’s born—similar to an ultrasound.
Have Anxiety over Baby Health? Get the Fetal Doppler Today!