You just entered your 34th week of pregnancy. Swollen feet are nothing new for you, but, oddly, you woke up yesterday with puffy hands. The swelling didn’t dissipate as the day wore on, and today, your hands don’t look any smaller. Don’t shrug off your expanded extremities as just another annoying symptom of pregnancy—they could indicate a blood pressure-related problem.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, during pregnancy can harm both mother and baby, especially if the mother develops preeclampsia. This condition occurs when blood pressure becomes significantly elevated and protein enters the urine, typically after the 20th week of gestation.
Preeclampsia can have severe consequences, including stroke. The stroke rate for American women with preeclampsia and other high blood pressure problems of pregnancy rose more than 100 percent from 1994 to 2011, according to a study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology in January 2015. The study found that women with pregnancy-related hypertensive problems were five times more likely to have a stroke than women without those conditions.
Several factors can make an expectant mother vulnerable to preeclampsia, including first-time pregnancy, obesity, pregnancy after age 35 and certain chronic health conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure. Preeclampsia can develop silently, making regular blood pressure checks both at home and during prenatal visits important. However, some women may experience rapid weight gain, swelling in the face and hands, persistent headache, stomach pain, and nausea and vomiting.
If you’re diagnosed with preeclampsia, you could be off your feet for a while—your physician may recommend bed rest and, perhaps, blood pressure medication to manage the condition until your baby is ready to meet the world. Preeclampsia will likely resolve after pregnancy, but you’ll be more susceptible to it if you get pregnant again.
Thinking of trying to have a baby? Speak with your physician about bringing preeclampsia risk factors, particularly high blood pressure, under control. By caring for yourself, you’ll improve your little one’s chances of a healthy start to life.
A Lifetime of Prevention
Averting the third-leading cause of death among American women requires lifelong vigilance. In early 2014, the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association released the first women-specific stroke prevention guidelines.
Young adulthood—Have a blood pressure screening and consult your physician before taking birth control pills, which can increase risk for stroke and may be especially risky for women with high blood pressure. Work with your physician to treat high blood pressure before and during pregnancy.
Middle age—Discuss the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with your physician. HRT was once thought to decrease stroke risk but is now known to make women more vulnerable to stroke.
Golden years—Have an atrial fibrillation screening if you’re older than 75. This type of arrhythmia is more common in women than men after that age, and those who have the condition are four times more likely to have a stroke than individuals with normal heart rhythms.