Preeclampsia & Your Heart: What Expectant Moms Should Know

Published: Wednesday, July 27, 2022

During pregnancy, your OB/GYN may talk to you about a number of health conditions he or she will watch for. One of those conditions is preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a specific type of high blood pressure that occurs after week 20 of pregnancy. If you’re diagnosed with the condition, should you worry about your heart health?

It’s a common question for expectant moms. So we’re taking a few minutes today to break down the basics about preeclampsia and the heart.

What Causes Preeclampsia?

We mentioned that preeclampsia is a type of high blood pressure that occurs specifically during pregnancy. Because of that, the causes of the condition are believed to be largely pregnancy-related.

Outside of pregnancy, high blood pressure (also called hypertension) can occur due to a number of factors, including a diet high in salt and fat, a family history of high blood pressure, a lack of physical activity, and excessive stress.

While these factors may contribute to elevated blood pressure during pregnancy (a condition known as gestational hypertension), researchers believe that preeclampsia is caused by the pregnancy itself. As the baby grows during pregnancy, blood vessels develop to supply oxygen and nutrients to the placenta, which feeds the baby.

When those blood vessels don’t work effectively, it can disrupt blood flow to the placenta and elevate the mother’s blood pressure.

Who Is at High Risk of Preeclampsia?

While any expectant woman can develop preeclampsia, some women are at higher risk. Risk factors include:

  • Being age 35 or older
  • Being Black
  • Being pregnant for the first time or more than 10 years after past pregnancy
  • Carrying multiples
  • Having a body mass index of 30 or higher
  • Having a mom or sister who had preeclampsia
  • Having an autoimmune disorder, such as lupus
  • Having chronic high blood pressure
  • Having diabetes
  • Having kidney disease
  • Having had preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy

What Are the Early Warning Signs of Preeclampsia?

Like other types of high blood pressure, preeclampsia may not cause any symptoms. That’s why high blood pressure in general is known as a “silent” condition.

But in some cases, particularly when blood pressure is very elevated, women who are experiencing preeclampsia may experience a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • A headache that won’t seem to go away
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Pain in the upper abdomen or shoulder
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Swelling in the hands or feet
  • Vision changes, such as a blurriness or light sensitivity

If you experience any of these symptoms during pregnancy, it’s important to check in with your medical provider promptly. While many of these symptoms are common during pregnancy, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

If preeclampsia is suspected, your provider will check your blood pressure and take a urine sample to look for the presence of protein in the urine, an indicator of the condition.

Can Preeclampsia Hurt My Heart?

Women who have preeclampsia are at risk for a number of pregnancy complications, including placental abruption, poor intrauterine growth for the baby or a low birthweight, and premature birth.

Beyond these pregnancy issues, though, the women themselves are also at risk. Those who have preeclampsia that goes untreated can develop kidney, liver, or brain damage, blood clots, eclampsia (where a woman has seizures or goes into a coma), or even stroke.

Preeclampsia can also affect the heart, both during pregnancy and for many years afterward. High blood pressure of any sort, including preeclampsia, puts excess pressure on the walls of the blood vessels, eventually damaging them and limiting blood flow to the heart.

Women who have preeclampsia are at a much higher risk of developing heart failure later in life, according to a 2020 study. They are also at double the risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or blood clots in the 15-year period after pregnancy.

Because of these effects on the heart and the body as a whole, it’s important to quickly seek medical attention if your blood pressure is elevated during pregnancy or you develop any of the symptoms outlined above. Most women with the condition can be safely treated and deliver healthy babies, but prompt treatment is important.

Learn More

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.