What Expectant Moms Should Know About Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) 

Published: Friday, February 25, 2022
Non-invasive cardiologist with Georgia Heart Institute

When you’re expecting a new addition to the family, your heart health may be the last thing on your mind. But because pregnancy changes your body in multiple ways, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your heart. Here’s what to know about one concern— Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection or SCAD .

A woman’s body goes through many changes during pregnancy. Whole parts of the body move around to accommodate the growing baby, and hormones fluctuate.

During pregnancy, you see your OB/GYN regularly to check on your health and that of your child. Those checkups keep a close eye on some factors related to heart health, including your blood pressure and your blood sugar.

That’s because pregnancy can wreak havoc on those two measurements. Even if you typically have normal blood pressure and normal blood sugar, those levels may sharply increase during pregnancy.

This can lead to conditions known as preeclampsia, which is dangerously high blood pressure, or gestational diabetes, which is a form of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy.

But while these pregnancy-related heart health challenges are well-known, another potential risk isn’t. Otherwise healthy women can develop what’s known as spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, a specific cause of heart attack.

The Facts about SCAD

You’re probably most familiar with heart attacks that occur due to a blockage in the arteries. SCAD represents a different source of heart attack.

When a person has spontaneous coronary artery dissection, it means that the wall of the artery has torn. A tear in the three-layered artery wall can lead to blood leaking into the inner layer and getting stuck. This creates a bulge in the wall that narrows the artery, which limits or cuts off the flow of blood to the heart.

Many heart attack patients have some type of risk factor, such as high blood pressure or a history of smoking. But that’s not usually the case with SCAD, which most often occurs in women who have few or even no risk factors for heart disease.

The Connection Between Pregnancy & SCAD

SCAD can occur in both men and women of any age. But what makes SCAD unique is that while it is rare there is a higher risk it is particularly common among women just after pregnancy.

In fact, according to the American Heart Association, nearly one-third of all SCAD patients recently gave birth. Researchers aren’t quite sure why the risk of SCAD is so high in the postpartum phase, but it may be associated with the stress and strain of pregnancy and childbirth.

The physical strain of childbirth, in particular, may be a factor. It’s known that when SCAD occurs in men, it’s typically after intensely challenging exercise. So it makes sense that the intensely challenging exercise of labor and delivery may have a similar effect.

But if most women who have pregnancy-associated SCAD have no known risk factors for a heart attack, how can you protect yourself during and after pregnancy?

During pregnancy, do what you can to reduce the stress on your body. Make sure you’re building in time to rest, but also make time for regular exercise, which can help strengthen your body and prepare it for delivery.

The most important thing you can do to protect your health is to familiarize yourself and those around you with the symptoms of a heart attack. If you experience any of them, including chest pain, shortness of breath, excessive sweating, or dizziness, seek immediate emergency medical attention by calling 911.

Women have unique heart health needs and concerns. Women’s Heart Center of Georgia Heart Institute is here to help, offering a full scope of services related to women’s heart health.

Heart Care For Every Stage of Life 

 As the state’s most forward-thinking heart and vascular program, Georgia Heart Institute is reimagining the patient experience, integrating services across all heart and vascular specialties and incorporating innovative breakthroughs into the care our experts provide every day. Ultimately, our impressive team of cardiologists, surgeons and highly-trained specialists is doing whatever it takes to keep patients’ hearts at their healthiest. We’re here to save and improve lives for generations.