Unless your arm is actively being squeezed by a blood pressure monitor, it’s easy to forget about this health measurement completely. But there’s a good reason to keep it in mind when you’re expecting. Here’s what doctors want you to know about high blood pressure during pregnancy, because these two numbers can say so much about you and your baby’s health. High blood pressure (AKA hypertension) can complicate a pregnancy, but there are many ways to help manage this condition if you do have it.
Blood Pressure Basics
As the physicians explain, understanding your blood pressure is crucial health info for everyone. “It’s helpful to know if someone has uncontrolled hypertension in general because it could lead to hypertensive cardiovascular disease, strokes, renal failure and/or dementia,” Dr. Edward Hills, OB/GYN at the Meharry Clinic, tells Romper. For the most part, normal blood pressure is 120/80 or less, Hills further explains. However, don’t worry if your numbers don’t perfectly meet that standard. “100 - 120 is typically okay for the systolic number, which is the top number,” Dr. Sharon A. Smith, MD and OB/GYN, tells Romper, adding that the bottom (diastolic) number may range from the 50s to the 70s. What readings could point to potential problems? “When they start trending into the 130s/80s and above, that is a little bit more concerning because outside of pregnancy, that in itself is like stage one hypertension,” says Smith.
Blood Pressure Readings & Pregnancy
Pregnancy affects basically everything in the body, however, and blood pressure is no exception. “Everyone’s baseline blood pressure is different and can change in pregnancy,” as Dr. Mitchell Kramer, Chair of OB/GYN at Huntington Hospital, tells Romper. This may affect your blood pressure’s safe ranges. “Normal blood pressure in pregnancy can vary from individual to individual, but it can vary from 90/60 to 130/80. Blood pressure 140/90 would be considered to be elevated and would require additional testing and/or treatment depending on the gestational age and other factors like age, weight, and medical history,” says Kramer. It’s a lot to keep in mind, but here are some general guidelines for blood pressure during pregnancy provided by Dr. Alan Copperman, Medical Director at Progyny and co-founder of Reproductive Medicine Associates of NY.
- Normal: Less than 120/80 mm Hg
- Elevated blood pressure: Systolic between 120 and 129 mm Hg and diastolic less than 80 mm Hg
- Stage 1 hypertension: Systolic between 130 and 139 mm Hg or diastolic between 80 and 89 mm Hg
- Stage 2 hypertension: Systolic at least 140 mm Hg or diastolic at least 90 mm Hg or higher
High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy Risks
Even if you’ve never had to think about blood pressure readings before, it’s important to keep an eye on those numbers when you’re pregnant. “During pregnancy, it’s even more important to monitor your blood pressure. Some people who have never had high blood pressure issues before will develop what’s called gestational hypertension, where high blood pressure only develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy,” says Copperman. It’s possible to have gestational hypertension without even knowing it, as Romper writer Steph Montgomery explains, but the condition can be managed with blood pressure monitoring and (if necessary) prescribed medication.
If you develop high blood pressure before the pregnancy or during the first 20 weeks of gestation, then this is known as chronic hypertension, Smith explains.
Characterized by high blood pressure and swelling, preeclampsia is a syndrome that affects approximately 3 to 5 percent of pregnant people, according to a review in Postepy Biochemii. “Preeclampsia... can cause severe damage to organs including the kidney, liver, blood and/or brain,” says Copperman. “Left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to serious, and even fatal, complications for both the mother and baby, including the development of seizures.” Although a common myth about preeclampsia claims that the condition is “cured” once the baby is delivered, note that postpartum preeclampsia is another potential complication. Work closely with your doctor to help manage this condition during (and possibly after) your pregnancy.
Other Potential Risks
“Aside from gestational hypertension and preeclampsia as mentioned previously, there are other risks associated with high blood pressure during pregnancy as well. First, it can lead to decreased blood flow to your placenta, meaning your baby is receiving less oxygen and nutrients,” says Copperman, adding that this can cause slow growth, low birth weights, and even premature births. “It can also lead to placental abruption, where the placenta detaches from the uterine wall, which can lead to severe bleeding and is life threatening for both the mother and baby.” Talk to your doctor to determine whether these additional risks are likely to happen in your pregnancy.
Signs Of High Blood Pressure In Pregnancy
Sometimes hypertension can cause specific symptoms in the body. “Physical signs of elevated blood pressure can be headaches, visual disturbances, abdominal pain, edema (swelling), and excessive weight gain in a short period of time,” says Kramer. Shortness of breath, nausea, and sensitivity to light can be additional signs of hypertension, as Copperman explains. However, this isn’t always the case. “Sometimes there are no physical signs, and that's the thing about high blood pressure,” says Smith. This is another reason why prenatal care check-ups are so important.
How To Avoid Hypertension In Pregnancy
General healthy lifestyle advice applies here. “Taking care of your body is the best thing you can do to lower your blood pressure during pregnancy,” says Copperman. “Staying active, eating healthy, and avoiding things like smoking, drinking and even some over-the-counter drugs will all decrease your chances of developing high blood pressure during pregnancy.”
How To Manage High Blood Pressure In Pregnancy
If you do have high blood pressure during pregnancy, rest assured that there are many ways to help manage the condition. Following your doctor’s advice is the main thing, and some general lifestyle changes can also make a difference. “In general, decreased salt intake, adequate hydration, low sugar intake, and moderate weight gain in pregnancy can be helpful,” says Kramer. Because some antihypertensive medications are not safe for pregnancy, as Hills explains, make sure your healthcare provider knows you’re expecting.
Lastly, if you experience hypertension during pregnancy, just remember that you’re far from alone. In general, some studies suggest high blood pressure during pregnancy is becoming more common, with data from 151 million pregnant women in the US between 1970 and 2010 experiencing a 13-fold increase in hypertension. And remember that having high blood pressure isn’t necessarily your “fault” for any reason. For instance, one of the risk factors for gestational hypertension includes carrying carrying twins or triplets, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which isn’t exactly something you get to choose. But for the most part, by keeping an eye on your health, it’s possible to manage high blood pressure during pregnancy so both you and the baby make it through the delivery date safely.
Filipek A, Jurewicz E. (2018) Preeclampsia - a disease of pregnant women. Postepy Biochem, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30656917/