Anticoagulants and pregnancy: When are they safe?

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Since anticoagulants for primary prevention of adverse pregnancy outcomes in thrombophilic women have not yet been shown to have a definitive benefit, they are not recommended for this purpose.


Women with antiphospholipid antibodies and a previous poor obstetric outcome are clearly at increased risk of recurrent adverse pregnancy outcomes such as recurrent spontaneous abortion, unexplained fetal death, placental insufficiency, and early or severe preeclampsia. In such women who have both antiphospholipid antibodies and a history of venous thromboembolism or adverse pregnancy outcome, treatment during subsequent pregnancy with low-dose aspirin and prophylactic-dose LMWH or unfractionated heparin improves pregnancy outcomes. 36–42 Women with antiphospholipid antibodies without previous thrombosis or pregnancy complications may also be at increased risk, but it is unclear whether thromboprophylaxis improves their outcomes.

Recent epidemiologic data reveal that women with other thrombophilic conditions also are at increased risk of early, severe preeclampsia 73 as well as other pregnancy complications, including recurrent pregnancy loss, placental abruption, fetal growth restriction, and stillbirth. 74 A recent meta-analysis 75 looked at individual thrombophilias and found that factor V Leiden and prothrombin gene mutations were associated with recurrent fetal loss, stillbirth, and preeclampsia; that protein S deficiency was associated with recurrent fetal loss and stillbirth; that antiphospholipid antibodies were associated with recurrent pregnancy loss, preeclampsia, and intrauterine growth restriction; that the MTHFR mutation (homozygous) was associated with preeclampsia; and that protein C and antithrombin deficiencies were not significantly associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes. Data were scant for some of the rarer thrombophilias. 75

Several recent small studies 76–78 suggest that anticoagulants may improve pregnancy outcomes in women with genetic thrombophilias and recurrent pregnancy loss. These findings have not yet been confirmed in high-quality clinical trials, but such trials are under way. It is still unclear whether anticoagulants also reduce the risk of other adverse pregnancy outcomes associated with thrombophilias.

The current American College of Chest Physicians guidelines recommend testing of women with adverse pregnancy outcomes (recurrent pregnancy loss, prior severe or recurrent preeclampsia, abruptions, or otherwise unexplained intrauterine death) for congenital thrombophilias and antiphospholipid antibodies, and offering treatment to such women, if thrombophilic, with low-dose aspirin plus prophylactic heparin (unfractionated or LMWH). 22 The authors of the guidelines admit that the evidence for this recommendation is weak, but they argue that the heparin will also serve as thromboprophylaxis in this high-risk group. Hopefully, the randomized clinical trials currently under way will provide clearer guidance regarding the most appropriate therapy in this difficult clinical situation.


Internists may occasionally encounter a woman with a mechanical heart valve prosthesis who is either pregnant or is planning a pregnancy and therefore needs advice regarding optimal anticoagulant management. This should generally be undertaken in a multi-disciplinary fashion, with input from cardiology, hematology, and maternal-fetal medicine. The substantial maternal and fetal risks and the lack of definitive data on which to base treatment decisions make it a treacherous and stressful undertaking. Nonetheless, all internists should have a basic understanding of the complex issues regarding this management.

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