Definition & Overview

Pregnancy can be the most exciting yet difficult time in every woman’s life. The experience of having a new life forming inside the body is like no other. However, it is also the time when women are most vulnerable to different medical and emotional conditions.

No matter how hard women try, not all pregnancies go according to plan. Complications may develop before, during, or after pregnancy. Some complications are mild but others can threaten not only the life of the mother, but the life of the baby as well.

Due to a number of factors that can affect the woman and her baby’s health, it’s impossible to ensure a healthy pregnancy. However, if a woman is aware of the risk factors and signs and symptoms of possible complications, she can take preventive measures or seek immediate medical attention and avoid serious health risks.

Cause of Condition

Pregnancy complications can be caused by a wide variety of factors; from the woman’s genes to the environment and these factors can put both her physical and mental health are at risk.

The most common complications associated with pregnancy are high blood pressure, preeclampsia, preterm labor, pregnancy loss, gestational diabetes, anemia, and urinary tract infections (UTI).

  • High blood pressure: Also referred to as hypertension, this condition occurs when the arteries supplying blood to different organs and the placenta become narrow. When this happens, the organs fail to receive the ideal amount of oxygen and minerals that blood carries. It is possible for the fetus to fail to grow normally. In some cases, hypertension leads to preterm labor or preeclampsia. Women who have been diagnosed with hypertension even before pregnancy should monitor their condition on a regular basis and continue to take medications. If hypertension develops during pregnancy, it is referred to as gestational hypertension. This condition will normally go away after the pregnancy, but it should also be monitored closely. Some women with gestational hypertension may need to undergo an emergency C-section to prevent further risking their lives as well as their baby’s. Eating the right diet, getting an adequate amount of exercise, and sleeping well can reduce the risks of developing gestational hypertension.

  • Preeclampsia: This is one of the most serious pregnancy-related complications that will likely result in premature delivery. The exact causes are unknown, but some of the risk factors, such as obesity and high blood pressure can be avoided.

  • Preterm Labor: This condition is described as labor that occurs before 37 weeks of gestation. Avoiding infections may reduce the risk. In some cases, medications may stop or slow down the condition.

  • Pregnancy Loss: If a woman’s pregnancy fails to develop within 20 weeks, the condition is referred to as a miscarriage. If she loses the pregnancy after 20 weeks, it is called a “stillbirth.” Unfortunately, many of the risk factors, such as placental problems, poor fetal growth, and chromosomal abnormalities are beyond the woman’s control.

  • Gestational Diabetes: Hormonal changes during pregnancy may affect the ability of the pancreas to produce enough insulin resulting in this type of diabetes. This condition can have serious effects on the health of both the mother and the baby.

  • Anemia: Pregnancy-related anemia is common, which is why pregnant women are advised to take iron and folic acid supplements.

  • Urinary Tract Infection: UTI is one of the most common conditions that develop during pregnancy. It is a bacterial infection and is treated with antibiotics. However, the doctor should be aware of the pregnancy to prescribe the right type of antibiotics.

Key Symptoms

Pregnancy complications can display a wide variety of symptoms. Some symptoms may be mild, but others require immediate medical attention.

Below are considered emergencies:

  • Bleeding
  • Vomiting and severe nausea
  • Decline in the baby’s activity level

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

An ob-gyn monitors the woman and the baby’s condition periodically to ensure that the pregnancy is progressing well. However, a pregnant woman should not hesitate to seek immediate medical attention should she notice the above-mentioned symptoms.

Some complications can be treated using medications, but others can neither be prevented nor treated. For instance, if the complication is due to an abnormal growth of the fetus, no amount of medical intervention can assist in the pregnancy.

If the woman and baby’s lives are at risk, the doctor may opt to perform a cesarean section (C-section) delivery. Complications that may necessitate this type of surgery are:

  • The fetus is too large
  • Labor fails to progress
  • There are more than one fetus
  • An STD or infection
  • If the infant is upside down
  • Placenta problems
  • The baby’s health is at risk
    A woman’s mental health is also at risk during and after pregnancy. Some women may experience severe depression during this time. It’s important to realize the signs and symptoms of depression, and to seek professional help as this can have serious effects on the woman and baby’s physical health. If depression occurs after pregnancy, it is referred to as postpartum depression. Most of the time, the woman fails to recognize the presence of this condition, which is why the husband or other family members should seek help for her if they notice any of the symptoms.

Because of the numerous risks associated with pregnancy, couples should always be prepared for any type of emergency. It’s best to discuss an emergency plan with the attending ob-gyn. It would also be a good investment to attend childbirth education classes as these normally have lessons on emergency procedures.

It’s important to remember that emergency plans are only effective if everyone in the home is aware of the plan. Make sure that a copy of the plan is placed at an accessible location so that everyone knows what to expect or do during an emergency.

References:

  • Cunningham FG, Leveno KJ, Bloom SL, et al. Preconceptional counseling. In: Cunnigham FG, Leveno KL, Bloom SL, et al, eds. Williams Obstetrics. 23rd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2010:chap 7.

  • Jack BW, Atrash H, Coonrod DV, et al. The clinical content of preconception care: an overview and preparation of this supplement. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2008;199:S266-S279.

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