Clinical Review

Importance of providing standardized management of hypertension in pregnancy

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CASE Onset of nausea and headache, and elevated BP, at full term

A 24-year-old woman (G1P0) at 39 2/7 weeks of gestation without significant medical history and with uncomplicated prenatal care presents to labor and delivery reporting uterine contractions. She reports nausea and vomiting, and reports having a severe headache this morning. Blood pressure (BP) is 154/98 mm Hg. Urine dipstick analysis demonstrates absence of protein.

How should this patient be managed?

Although we have gained a greater understanding of hypertensive disorders in pregnancy—most notably, preeclampsia—during the past 15 years, management of these patients can, as evidenced in the case above, be complicated. Providers must respect this disease and be cognizant of the significant maternal, fetal, and neonatal complications that can be associated with hypertension during pregnancy—a leading cause of preterm birth and maternal mortality in the United States.1-3 Initiation of early and aggressive antihypertensive medical therapy, when indicated, plays a key role in preventing catastrophic complications of this disease.

Terminology and classification

Hypertension of pregnancy is classified as:

  • chronic hypertension: BP140/90 mm Hg prior to pregnancy or prior to 20 weeks of gestation. Patients who have persistently elevated BP 12 weeks after delivery are also in this category.
  • preeclampsia–eclampsia: hypertension along with multisystem involvement that occurs after 20 weeks of gestation.
  • gestational hypertension: hypertension alone after 20 weeks of gestation; in approximately 15% to 25% of these patients, a diagnosis of preeclampsia will be made as pregnancy progresses.
  • chronic hypertension with superimposed preeclampsia: hypertension complicated by development of multisystem involvement during the course of the pregnancy—often a challenging diagnosis, associated with greater perinatal morbidity than either chronic hypertension or preeclampsia alone.

Evaluation of the hypertensive gravida

Although most pregnant patients (approximately 90%) who have a diagnosis of chronic hypertension have primary or essential hypertension, a secondary cause—including thyroid disease, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and underlying renal disease—might be present and should be sought out. It is important, therefore, to obtain a comprehensive history along with a directed physical examination and appropriate laboratory tests.

Ideally, a patient with chronic hypertension should be evaluated prior to pregnancy, but this rarely occurs. At the initial encounter, the patient should be informed of risks associated with chronic hypertension, as well as receive education on the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia. Obtain a thorough history—not only to evaluate for secondary causes of hypertension or end-organ involvement (eg, kidney disease), but to identify comorbidities (such as pregestational diabetes mellitus). The patient should be instructed to immediately discontinue any teratogenic medication (such as an angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor or angiotensin-receptor blocker).


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