High Blood Pressure Risk After Childbirth

Thousands of women a year develop high blood pressure after giving birth, even though they never had high blood pressure before.

In fact, nearly 1 in 8 of such new mothers may develop high blood pressure in the year after delivery.  About a fifth of them develop it more than six weeks after giving birth, according to a recent study. Those at highest risk were:

  • Age 35 or older
  • Those who had a C-section
  • A current or former smoker

But experts say it can strike anyone, even those without obvious risk factors.

High blood pressure after pregnancy can be serious and fatal if not treated. Severe cases have been linked with:

  • strokes
  • heart failure
  • seizures
  • kidney failure

High blood pressure and preeclampsia are most common in the first two weeks after giving birth, said Dr. Elizabeth Langen, co-director of the cardio-obstetrics program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

Preeclampsia is a condition that causes high blood pressure and can cause other organs to not function as they should. 

That's why it's key, she said, that all new mothers know to look for the signs and symptoms of high blood pressure and preeclampsia during the weeks and months after childbirth. The symptoms can include:

  • A top blood pressure reading of 140 mmHg or higher
  • A bottom blood pressure reading of 90 mmHg or higher
  • Blurry vision or seeing spots
  • Constant headache
  • Shortness of breath

An over-the-counter blood pressure monitor can help women check their blood pressure at home.

If new mothers have these symptoms, they should get checked by a doctor who is aware that they recently had a baby. If they don't, it may increase the risk of more health problems and even death, Langden said.

New mothers should get a health checkup within three weeks of giving birth and schedule more visits as needed. That first checkup should within three to 10 days after giving birth for women who had high blood pressure when pregnant.

For mothers who learn they have high blood pressure or preeclampsia after giving birth, "it can be a very stressful time. These new mothers thought they weren't at risk. They didn't realize that something like this could happen after delivery," said Dr. Jennifer Lewey, a heart specialist hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Some programs remotely monitor new mothers' blood pressure a couple of times a day. But experts say more work needs to be done to increase the number of these programs across the country. And more needs to be done to build awareness of the problem. Physicians also need to be trained to be able to detect and treat these conditions.

Source: American Heart Association