High Blood Pressure In Pregnancy: What You Need To Know

It may be a scary diagnosis, but high blood pressure during pregnancy is a controllable complication. Here's what you need to know

High blood pressure during pregnancy, known also as preeclampsia and pregnancy induced hypertension, can be a frightening diagnosis, however it is one of the most common complications of pregnancy, occurring in between two and six percent of pregnancies in Canada. 

I was a part of that statistic in 2010 while expecting my first child and experiencing a very “routine” pregnancy until my official diagnosis. While there is no way to cure preeclampsia, or completely prevent it, the most important and effective way to treat preeclampsia is early detection.

What Is Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is believed to be a placenta related complications during pregnancy which presents as high blood pressure during the second half of pregnancy, sudden and/or extreme swelling of the extremities, and at times the face, rapid weight gain and protein in the urine.

My own experience with preeclampsia was pretty close to the textbook definition.  I went through pregnancy without much issue until about 36 weeks when my blood pressure slowly began to rise, as did the size of my feet and ankles.  By 39 weeks there was protein in my urine and even my gums were swollen.

If the condition is severe those suffering may also experience headaches, visual disturbances and seizures.  If you have any of these symptoms it’s important to seek medical attention immediately as they could indicate that the condition has progressed to eclampsia, a sometimes fatal complication.

Risk Factors

While it is still unknown exactly why preeclampsia occurs and what causes it, there are a number of factors that increase an expectant mother’s chances of developing the disorder including:

  • First pregnancies
  • Increased maternal age (over 40)
  • Family history (mother or sisters) of preeclampsia
  • Expecting multiples
  • Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more
  • Experience with preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy
  • Having high blood pressure before becoming pregnant

Treatment

As my doctor told me “There is no cure for it, other than delivery.” Thankfully I was 39 weeks along and able to delivery a healthy baby without any other complications.  My blood pressure returned to normal before I even left the hospital.  The majority of cases of preeclampsia result in a healthy mother and baby.

The treatment of preeclampsia is entirely dependent on the severity of the condition, health of the mother and baby and length of pregnancy.  If preeclampsia is mild to moderate an expectant mother will likely be encouraged to have labour induced between 37-39 weeks gestation, as fetal growth restrictions can occur.  In addition, women may be given medication to lower their blood pressure.  Both mother and baby will be monitored closely through blood and urine tests, blood pressure measurement, and possibly ultrasounds.

If preeclampsia is severe the mother may be required to remain in the hospital where she can be monitored closely.  In extreme cases doctors will deliver the baby before 37 weeks if the mother’s blood pressure cannot be controlled.

It is important to seek medical attention if you experience any of the symptoms listed above at any point during your pregnancy.

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