Many of us naturally think of heart disease, or other heart problems, as a condition which affects only middle-aged women approaching menopause or older women. The truth is that young women of child bearing years can -- and do -- suffer with heart disease and other heart conditions.
For young women with preexisting heart conditions or heart disease, pregnancy brings not only the joy and wonder of bringing a new life into the world, but also unique health risks and challenges.
Pregnancy places both the heart and circulatory system under stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, both the amount of blood volume and amount of blood pumped by the heart increases somewhere been 30 and 50 percent during pregnancy. These increases in the heart’s workload, place an already diseased or damaged heart under stress.
A variety of heart conditions may impact a woman’s health during pregnancy. The most common heart conditions observed during pregnancy are congenital heart defects. Congenital heart defects are defects which are present at birth.
In addition to congenital heart defects, acquired heart conditions such as valvular disease, cardiomyopathy, ischemic heart disease, congestive heart failure, and arrhythmias or irregular heartbeats may also lead to serious health complications during pregnancy.
The complications and health risks during pregnancy from preexisting heart conditions can vary widely depending on the particular heart condition. For example, women with arrhythmias or congestive heart failure may find that while mild, the heart conditions become much worse during pregnancy.
On the other hand, those with valve replacement or artificial hearts may find that their artificial valve or heart can’t tolerate the increased workload required during pregnancy. They are also at risk for developing endocarditis, an infection of the lining that surrounds the heart and valves, which may become life-threatening.
Some heart conditions, including congenital defects, may be life-threatening to both the mother and unborn child.
The concerns relating to preexisting heart conditions is not to be taken lightly. The European Society of Cardiology, or ESC, reports that preexisting cardiovascular disease is now the number one cause of death in pregnant women in Europe.
In addition, the ESC reports that women with preexisting heart conditions are also more likely to be hospitalized and 40 percent more likely to need a cesarean section to safely deliver.
If you have an existing heart condition, and are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, it’s important to have good medical care during your pregnancy. If possible, make an appointment with your doctor before becoming pregnant so that you understand the risks, potential complications, as well as what’s required of you to have a successful, complication-free pregnancy.
Medications may need to be adjusted or changed, and you may be asked to have more frequent electrocardiograms or echocardiograms to monitor your heart health. Your physician will also take care to monitor your baby’s health during pregnancy as well.
While a preexisting heart condition does increase your risk of complications during pregnancy, good healthcare will improve the outcome for both mother and baby.
Heart Disease and Pregnancy: Know the Risks. The Mayo Clinic. 30 Jul 2011. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/pregnancy/PR00124
Pregnancy: Heart and Stroke Increase Maternal Mortality. Health and Medicine News. 11 Sept 2011.
David Williams. European guidance recommends screening pregnant women for heart disease. Nursing Times.net. 5 Sept 2011. http://www.nursingtimes.net/nursing-practice/clinical-specialisms/cardiology/european-guidance-recommends-screening-pregnant-women-for-heart-disease/5034512.article
Reviewed October 6, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith