Should I worry about peripartum cardiomyopathy?

Published: Monday, June 27, 2022

In the last trimester of pregnancy, it’s quite normal for your feet to swell and for you to experience some shortness of breath on occasion. But in rare cases, those symptoms could be a sign of a medical condition known as peripartum cardiomyopathy.

It’s important to note that peripartum cardiomyopathy is incredibly rare. The condition affects only between 1,000 and 1,300 women in the United States each year, according to the American Heart Association.

But when it does occur, the condition is quite serious. Read on as we answer a few common questions about it.

What is the cause of peripartum cardiomyopathy?

Peripartum cardiomyopathy is a type of heart failure that occurs during the last month of pregnancy and up to five months after giving birth.

When a woman has this form of cardiomyopathy, the heart chambers enlarge and the heart muscle weakens. Because of these changes, the heart can’t pump blood effectively to other parts of the body.

Why does this happen? Researchers aren’t entirely sure, but believe that the condition is at least partially caused by increased demands on the heart related to pregnancy in certain women who may be predisposed to it.

During pregnancy, a woman’s heart pumps as much as 50 percent more blood to get oxygen and important nutrients to the baby. This extra effort can strain the heart, and in some cases, cause peripartum cardiomyopathy.

What are the symptoms of peripartum cardiomyopathy?

If you have this type of heart failure, you might experience a number of symptoms, some of which are also parts of normal pregnancy. Symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain
  • Excessive fatigue, particularly during activity
  • Increased urination at night
  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the feet and ankles
  • Swollen veins in the neck

Who is at risk of peripartum cardiomyopathy?

While any pregnant woman can develop peripartum cardiomyopathy, certain factors place you at a higher risk of this rare condition. You’re at a higher risk if:

  • You’re obese.
  • You have high blood pressure or diabetes.
  • You have a history of heart disease.
  • You’re malnourished.
  • You smoke.
  • You have alcoholism.
  • You’re of African or African-American descent.
  • You’ve had multiple pregnancies.
  • You’re pregnant with multiples.
  • You’re 30 or older.
  • You’re taking medications to prevent premature delivery.

Can you recover from peripartum cardiomyopathy?

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms outlined above, your provider will check to see if you have any fluid in your lungs. This is done by listening for sounds in the lungs, a rapid heart rate, or sounds related to an abnormal heart rhythm.

If these signs indicate cardiomyopathy, an echocardiogram and lab tests will be used to confirm the diagnosis.

The good news is that in most cases, with treatment, women regain their heart function or it at least stabilizes. Treatment is designed to keep extra fluid out of the lungs and to help your heart push blood to the rest of the body.

Different kinds of medications may be recommended, including diuretics, blood thinners, ACE inhibitors, and beta blockers, and lifestyle changes will also be suggested. These may include a low-sodium diet or fluid restrictions to keep extra fluid from building up in the body.

Those who smoke or drink alcohol will be advised to stop, since both habits can worsen symptoms.

Next steps

If you are pregnant and have concerns about your heart health or symptoms like these, Georgia Heart Institute offers a specialized program for women’s unique heart health needs. The Women’s Heart Center of Georgia Heart Institute is here to help, offering a full scope of services related to women’s heart health.