Pre-eclampsia and high blood pressure in pregnancy

Women’s future health after pre-eclampsia

Some women we talked to had longer-term health issues and concerns related to their experience of having had pre-eclampsia or HELLP syndrome during their pregnancies. 
 
After they had recovered, several women were left with questions about whether their history of pre-eclampsia or HELLP syndrome in pregnancy put them at risk of developing other health conditions in the future. Emma’s doctor told her she could be at risk of high blood pressure and strokes later in life, although cause and effect was unclear: “she was saying she didn’t know whether that was because of the pre-eclampsia or a pre-disposing factor that caused pre-eclampsia and stroke, increased stroke risk”. Because of the increased risk of blood pressure and heart problems in the future, women who have had pre-eclampsia or HELLP syndrome are advised to see their GP on a yearly basis for health checks. A few women had been given advice by their doctors about ways to reduce these risks, such as keeping their weight in the ‘healthy’ range, stopping smoking and exercising regularly.
Whilst many symptoms or signs of high blood pressure problems had settled down in the days, weeks or months after giving birth, some women found there continued to be health problems.
  • On-going blood pressure problems
Some women found they continued to have high blood pressure for a long time after giving birth. While for some it settled back down eventually, others found that their blood pressure lingered as slightly higher than before the pregnancy or remained quite high. For some women, this meant adjusting to the realisation that they might always have high blood pressure. Betty doesn’t feel there has necessarily been an “endpoint” as her blood pressure is still a bit high and instead she’s aiming for a time when she’s “made peace with it”. Some women we spoke to had pre-existing high blood pressure (hypertension) before they became pregnant; Vicki and Aileen returned to taking the blood pressure medicines they were on before becoming pregnant.
  • Liver, kidney and lung problems
Some women found their pre-eclampsia or HELLP syndrome had affected their liver, kidneys and/or lungs, and there were sometimes ongoing health issues with these organs. Six months after giving birth, Claire was having ongoing liver problems. She was waiting for an MRI scan which she hoped would give her some answers as to whether the problems would stop or “are these now just side-effects that I need to live with?” Hanna’s doctors were investigating her ongoing shortness of breath, although she’s not sure if this is related to the pre-eclampsia problems she had in pregnancy. Other times, issues did resolve. Kay had kidney problems during her pregnancy and was told in hospital that they may not recover; it took four months, but eventually her kidney function was back to normal.
  • Emotional upset and anxiety
Several women talked about there being a lasting emotional impact from their experiences of high blood pressure problems. Some felt traumatised by what had happened and found going back into hospital, such as for check-up appointments, very difficult. Several women said they became very anxious about their own health and often the health of their children. Angela started having panic attacks and worried about her health, suspecting at one time that she had blood clots. Often this worry was based on their past experiences of feeling that medical professionals were not listening to their concerns or acting on them. Paige said her experiences with pre-eclampsia have made her take her health much more seriously and sometimes automatically thinks “the worst”. You can read more about the lasting emotional impact of pre-eclampsia or HELLP syndrome here.
  • Fatigue
A few women thought they were much more tired than is normal after having pre-eclampsia in their pregnancies, although it was not clear whether it was linked or an unrelated health problem. Hanna continued to feel very fatigued and tired for many months after having her daughter. Kay felt similar and thought this could be to do with iron deficiency, which also affected her eligibility to be a blood donor.
 
There were a few other health concerns which women thought might be related to having had high blood pressure in pregnancy. Paige said her eyesight had deteriorated and she sometimes had black spots in her vision, similar to those she had as a symptom of pre-eclampsia. Although not caused by high blood pressure problems in her pregnancy, Hanna found out through her emergency caesarean section that she has a “bendy throat”. This was discovered when doctors tried to insert a tube down her throat to help her breathing as part of the surgery under general anaesthetic. Julie had appendicitis diagnosed a little while after giving birth; she had some pains in the same location during her pregnancy and wonders if the appendicitis and pre-eclampsia were linked or if it was “just really bad luck”.
Many women said that their doctors hadn’t really talked to them about any lasting impact on their health as a result of having had pre-eclampsia. As Olivia explained, “nobody ever really told me about it”. 
 
Discussion of the future health impacts on women who experienced high blood pressure problems in their pregnancies often linked to the question of whether they wanted another pregnancy in the future.

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