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Your Guide to High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) During Pregnancy

Pregnancy is an incredible journey, but it can also bring unexpected health challenges like high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. High blood pressure during pregnancy is common in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it occurs in 1 in every 12 to 17 pregnancies. 

Untreated high blood pressure can be harmful for pregnant individuals and their babies during and after pregnancy and lead to serious health problems. High blood pressure puts you in danger of seizures, stroke and liver and kidney problems, as well as putting your baby in danger of low birth weight, premature birth or stillbirth. 

That’s why regular blood pressure checks during prenatal visits are so important. When detected early, pregnancy-related hypertension can be closely monitored and managed, lowering the risk of complications.

If you are pregnant and have concerns about high blood pressure, you’ve come to the right place. We share important information about high blood pressure during pregnancy and how it is treated.

What is high blood pressure during pregnancy?

Your blood pressure measures how strongly your blood pushes against the wall of your blood vessels with each heartbeat. It’s represented by two numbers: the top number (systolic) reflects the pressure when your heart contracts, while the bottom number (diastolic) indicates the pressure between heartbeats. Typically, a normal blood pressure reading is below 120/80 mmHg when you’re not pregnant, according to the CDC.

However, during pregnancy, your body undergoes many changes. Your heart works harder to pump more blood, supporting both you and your growing baby’s needs. As a result, it’s normal for blood pressure to fluctuate during pregnancy.

While blood pressure often decreases in early pregnancy and returns to normal by the end, some people experience elevated blood pressure throughout pregnancy. 

“When you are pregnant, normal blood pressure can vary but should remain below 140/90,” said Sarah Edgerton, DO, an OBGYN with Banner Health. “If your blood pressure measures 140/90 or higher, you should contact your health care provider.”

Types of high blood pressure during pregnancy

There are three different forms of high blood pressure during pregnancy:

  • Chronic hypertension: High blood pressure that begins before or during the first half of pregnancy (before 20 weeks) is called chronic hypertension. 
  • Gestational hypertension: Gestational hypertension typically presents in the second half of pregnancy (after 20 weeks). This type of high blood pressure is usually mild and goes away after the baby is born.
  • Preeclampsia: This type of high blood pressure occurs during the second or third trimester. “Preeclampsia is when you have high blood pressure during pregnancy and elevated protein in your urine,” Dr. Edgerton said. 

Preeclampsia can be very serious (and deadly) for you and your baby. If untreated, it can lead to eclampsia, which causes seizures, and HELLP syndrome, a condition that causes serious blood and liver problems. Preeclampsia can also limit the passing of nutrients and oxygen to the baby. This can put the baby at risk for low birth weight, premature birth and stillbirth.

“Because gestational hypertension and preeclampsia can occur during any pregnancy, your blood pressure is monitored closely and your urine is checked for protein during each prenatal visit,” Dr. Edgerton said.

The causes of high blood pressure during pregnancy

The exact causes of hypertension during pregnancy are not known, but several factors may increase your risk:

Signs and symptoms of high blood pressure during pregnancy

High blood pressure may not always present noticeable symptoms. However, you should contact your provider right away if you notice the following signs:

  • Severe headaches that don’t improve with Tylenol
  • Vision changes, such as flashes of light, blurry or tunnel vision
  • Upper abdominal (stomach) pain below the ribcage
  • Swelling of the face, hands and feet
  • Trouble breathing

Treating high blood pressure during pregnancy

If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure during pregnancy, your health care provider will closely monitor your blood pressure and urine, which may require more frequent prenatal visits.

“If gestational hypertension or preeclampsia is diagnosed, your provider will also monitor your baby’s heart rate and growth closely and will likely recommend delivering earlier than your due date,” Dr. Edgerton said.

Along with regular screenings and tests, you may need to take medicine to help your blood pressure. 

If you have high blood pressure during pregnancy, it is also important to:

  • Check your blood pressure at home
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise regularly unless advised otherwise by your provider
  • Prioritize rest
  • Contact your provider if you experience symptoms of preeclampsia or notice worsening blood pressure

How to lower your risk

While high blood pressure can happen in any pregnancy, there are ways to reduce your risk:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Stay physically active
  • Manage chronic conditions
  • Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption

“If you are at increased risk for high blood pressure, your health care provider may recommend taking low-dose aspirin during pregnancy,” Dr. Edgerton said. “Talk to your provider about your concerns or risk of developing hypertension.”

Takeaway

If you’re pregnant, keeping an eye on your blood pressure is important for your and your baby’s health. High blood pressure during pregnancy can lead to complications, but by staying informed and working closely with your health care provider, you can take steps to manage it effectively. 

Remember to attend all your prenatal appointments, follow your provider’s recommendations, eat a balanced diet, stay physically active within your limits and prioritize rest. 

Don’t hesitate to contact your provider or a Banner Health specialist if you notice anything unusual or concerning. A proactive approach can make a significant difference in ensuring a smooth pregnancy journey.

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