Heart issues during pregnancy: Know the risks

Taking charge of your health and your body is one of the most important things you can do while being pregnant. Pregnancy places significant demand on the female body and unfortunately, many pregnant women are unaware of the stress that pregnancy places on the heart. It is critical that women are aware of the impact that pregnancy puts on your body so that you can limit potentially negative consequences as much as possible.

The average woman has 1.5 gallons of blood in their body. This increases to approximately 3 gallons during pregnancy. This increase in blood supply gives your baby the nourishment that it needs to allow it to grow and develop. Along with the significant increase in volume, labor and delivery puts significant stress on your heart. The pressure and blood flow changes cause blood flow to the heart and baby to change dramatically.  If you have a heart condition, you will need special care during your pregnancy.

The risks arising while you are pregnant completely depend on the severity of your heart condition, for example:

  • Heart Valve Issues: Malformation, scarring, or having an artificial heart valve can all cause complications during pregnancy. Conditions that cause the opening of a heart valve to narrow (stenosis) can result in fluid filling up in the lungs (pulmonary edema) and an irregular heart rhythm. Your body might have trouble adapting to the extra blood you are accumulating if your valves are not working correctly as well as increasing the risk of infection.
  • Heart Rhythm Issues: While an abnormal heartbeat is common while pregnant, it is important to talk to your doctor if you experience or think that you are experiencing this condition (arrhythmia).
  • Congenital Heart Defect: With advances in modern medicine, more women are living with heart defects. If you were born with a heart defect, your baby is at a higher risk for developing one as well. You might be at risk for developing heart issues while pregnant and/or having the baby prematurely.
  • Congestive Heart Failure: As the volume of your blood increases, congestive heart failure can worsen. Congestive heart failure makes your pregnancy very high risk and should be managed by your OB/GYN in conjunction with a high-risk specialist.

Get a plan together

If you plan on getting pregnant and you have a known heart condition, there are many things that you can do to optimize your outcomes. First, schedule an appointment with your cardiologist and OB/GYN. They will likely refer you to an obstetrician who specializes in very high-risk pregnancies (maternal fetal medicine specialist). The doctor will evaluate your heart condition and help come up with a plan that is safe for you and the baby.

Your prenatal appointments will most likely include frequent blood and urine tests. Your health care provider will likely order an echocardiogram (an ultrasound that uses sound waves to produce images of your heart and the structures within your heart), or an electrocardiogram (a test that records your heart’s electrical activity). They can even perform an echocardiogram for your baby!

The most important thing you can do as a mother is take care of yourself. Manage your anxiety and stress levels, eat healthy, get plenty of rest, manage your weight, take your medication as prescribed, know what’s off limits and continue to go to every prenatal appointment. When you do those things, it will help make for a better pregnancy experience, as well as contribute to the health of your baby.

Signs/symptoms

If you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, immediately contact your health care provider:

  • Chest pain
  • Bloody cough or coughing at night
  • Heart palpitations, rapid heart rate, or irregular pulse
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath with exertion or rest

To schedule an appointment with an OB/GYN at UofL Physicians, call 502-588-4400 or visit https://uoflphysicians.com/service-specialty/ob-gyn-womens-health/.

To find a cardiologist at UofL Physicians, visit https://uoflphysicians.com/service-specialty/cardiovascular-medicine/.

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About Edward Miller, M.D., FACOG

Edward Miller, M.D., FACOG is a maternal-fetal medicine and high-risk obstetrician with UofL Physicians – OB/GYN & Women’s Health. Dr. Miller specializes in high-risk pregnancies that include heart conditions, diabetes during pregnancy, and multiples. He has done research around having twins, triplets and even quadruplets. Dr. Miller is involved in diversity and inclusion efforts for UofL Health, and he is an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health with the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

All posts by Edward Miller, M.D., FACOG