Blood Clots during Pregnancy

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Pregnancy is a time of joy, but also one of anxiety, stress and fear. A woman may face a few risky things during her pregnancy, one of which is the threat of blood clots. Even though very few pregnant women face a risk of developing a blood clot, it is a highly critical condition, and can lead to serious complications for the pregnant woman and her unborn baby. The important thing to do is stay calm in the face of pressure, to be able to deal with the many problems of pregnancy. Fortunately, there are several things one you can do to protect yourself and your child from the dangers posed by blood clots during pregnancy.

What Is a Blood Clot?

Your body can be injured in many ways. If your skin experiences a cut or wound, your body will send an army of special blood cells known as platelets to help. Platelets, along with an assortment of clotting factors, stick together to form a seal at the injury site, and stop blood from leaving the body. Clotting in such circumstances is an important bodily process to prevent blood loss. However, if a clot forms inside your veins and is unable to dissolve itself, this can become a dangerous situation.

Women face a much higher risk of developing a blood clot in the uterus during pregnancy than non-pregnant women. This is due to the raised estrogen levels in their blood, which promote the activity of clotting factors. While the clot may not be dangerous in itself, it might cause severe complications, depending on its location. Blood clots can form at any time during the pregnancy, or even for a few weeks after you give birth.

Types of Blood Clots

There are two main kinds of blood clots that form inside the body. They are:

1. Thrombus

Blood clots that form inside veins or arteries are known as a thrombus. Thrombus clots can also develop inside the heart. A thrombus is a coagulated mass of red blood cells, platelets, and fibrin protein. It can block healthy blood vessels and prevent blood flow, leading to a condition known as thrombosis. Generally, thrombosis occurs in the leg veins, but sometimes can happen elsewhere in the body. Thrombosis in pregnancy is quite common and very dangerous. The two main kinds of thrombosis are:

  • Deep Vein Thrombosis: Deep Vein Thrombosis, or DVT, occurs when a blood clot develops in a vein deep within the body, usually in the thigh or calf. It shows itself in the form of inflammation, swelling, pain, and warmth around the area in which it is located.
  • Cerebral Vein Thrombosis: Cerebral vein thrombosis, or CVT, is the formation of a blood clot in a vein that is present in the brain. This greatly increases the chances of a stroke.

2. Embolus

An embolus is a clump of material that moves through the blood vessels. It is most commonly a thrombus that has dislodged from a blood vessel, but can occasionally be fat or air bubbles. An embolus during pregnancy can also obstruct the flow of blood in various organs in the body, giving rise to a condition known as Venous Thromboembolism (VTE). If it hampers blood flow to the heart, lungs, or brain, it could cause severe damage or even death.

What Causes Blood Clots During Pregnancy?

There are several reasons for the formation of blood clots during pregnancy. Some of them are:

1. Cholesterol

Having cholesterol plaques clogging up your arteries will affect blood flow in that area, making you more susceptible to a thrombus.

2. Lack of Movement

Standing or sitting for long periods can promote the development of blood clots in the leg. Make sure you don’t sit cross-legged for too long, either.

3. Dehydration

Blood clots can develop in pregnant women who do not stay hydrated by drinking water or juices. Hyperemesis gravidarum is a sickness that could cause dehydration as well.

4. Recovering From Surgery

If you have recently undergone invasive surgeries that involve cutting into arteries and veins, you face a higher risk of blood clots.

5. Damage to Blood Vessels

The increase in the size of your baby during pregnancy will start putting pressure on the veins that lead to the pelvic region. This makes it likely for a clot to form in that region.

Who Is at the Risk of Getting Blood Clots During Pregnancy?

Developing a blood clot is uncommon, but the further you progress in your pregnancy, the higher is the risk, peaking at the first month after your child is born. There are many risks that can cause blood clots during pregnancy. They are:

1. Family History

If there is a history of the development of blood clots in your family, it is likely that you might have inherited that tendency.

2. Certain Medical Conditions

Having illnesses like heart disease, sickle cell anaemia, thrombophilia, high blood pressure, diabetes, or lupus greatly increase your risk of developing blood clots.

3. Age

Being over 40 makes your blood more likely to clot, so pregnant women above the age of 35 should take extra care.

4. Smoking

Smokers or second-hand smokers are at high risk of developing blood clots, as cigarette smoke tends to damage the inner lining of the blood vessels, as well as make platelets stickier.

5. Obesity

Having a BMI higher than 30 during pregnancy can cause reduced blood flow in the body, enhancing the formation of clots.

Signs and Symptoms of Blood Clots While Pregnant

As a pregnant woman, you are prone to constantly worrying for both your and your baby’s health. Instead of fretting about another possible danger, just take note of all the signs your body is trying to show you. If you find yourself facing any of the following symptoms, it’s best to seek medical attention immediately:

  1. Chest ache or tightness
  2. Bloody coughs
  3. Difficulty breathing
  4. Intense fatigue
  5. Swelling and tenderness in the calf, thighs and lower back

Tests

There are several ways in which blood clots can be determined by your doctor. A few commonly used techniques are:

  1. Pulmonary angiogram to check for any embolus in the lungs
  2. Ultrasound of the veins to visually check for clots
  3. D-dimer test, which measures the level of clotting-related proteins to check for the chemical presence of blood clots
  4. MRI of the veins to locate a thrombus
  5. Contrast venography, which is one of the best methods to identify clots (but it is quite expensive and invasive)
  6. A CT scan

Complications of Having Blood Clots in Pregnancy

Thrombosis kills someone every five minutes. As the risks of blood clots during pregnancy are significantly increased, it could cause serious damage to both you and your unborn child. Some of the complications that can emerge in your body from developing pregnancy blood clots are:

1. Pulmonary Embolism

When an embolus moves from its initial location, it is driven around by the bloodstream. If it somehow makes it to the lungs, it is known as a Pulmonary Embolism (PE). PE is a type of VTE along with DVT. This condition can drastically reduce oxygen levels, damaging multiple tissues and organs in the body. The symptoms of PE are shortness of breath, feeling faint, irregular heartbeat and anxiety.

2. Myocardial Infarction

Also known as a heart attack, it can occur if the blood clot obstructs the heart muscles from receiving oxygen and the nutrients it requires. This could lead to the slow death of the heart tissues, causing a heart attack. Heart attacks can cause severe damage to the heart, and are often fatal.

3. Ischemic Stroke

The brain requires a constant supply of blood to function. Cerebral Vein Thrombosis (CVT) can stop blood from reaching the brain, or in extreme cases, result in a bursting of the blood vessel. This is known as a stroke. Symptoms of a stroke are vision loss, dizziness, seizures, lack of feeling on one side of the body, and inability to move or speak. In many cases, strokes can lead to brain damage or fatality.

4. Preeclampsia

This is one of the most common conditions that some pregnant women go through, especially in their third trimester. Preeclampsia causes a rise in blood pressure, which affects the functions of the liver and kidneys. These organs may also be damaged if the condition is not treated in time. Some of the warnings signs of preeclampsia are headaches, protein in the urine, and unclear vision.

Can Blood Clots Affect Your Baby?

Blood clots are not only dangerous to your health, but they can also cause severe harm to your unborn child, especially if they travel to the uterus. Blood clots can occasionally form inside the placenta, which will result in a blockage in the foetus’s blood supply. A few of the dangers they can cause to your baby are:

1. Placental Dysfunction

As the placenta is the organ that serves as the pathway for oxygen and food between the foetus and the uterus, blood clots developing in the placenta will block the flow of blood to the foetus. This could put the life of your unborn child in serious jeopardy.

2. Foetal Growth Retardation

If the placenta is unable to function efficiently, oxygen and nutrients will not reach the foetus. This will result in the foetus developing incompletely or abnormally.

3. Miscarriage

Blood clots may also lead to the foetus dying before the third trimester, while still in the uterus.

4. Preterm Birth

Blood clots can also lead to premature birth, which means that the baby is born a week or more before its due date. These babies are underweight and might develop hearing disabilities, vision problems, cerebral palsy, and have lower IQ.

Can It Affect My Labour If I’m at High Risk of Getting DVT?

Deep Vein Thrombosis might be a debilitating condition, but you can still have a successful pregnancy even if you are at high risk. Reducing the risk of developing a clot until birth and for a few months afterwards is crucial. Some of the things you can do in your late pregnancy are:

  1. Move often as frequent movement will help keep the blood flowing through your body and reduce the chances of clots forming.
  2. Drink enough water as staying hydrated will prevent your blood from getting thick enough to precipitate clots.
  3. Aim to have a natural birth, as caesarean surgeries increase the risk of blood clots forming.

How Are Blood Clots Treated in Pregnant Women?

If the doctor observes blood clots in your body during pregnancy, there are several ways with which they can be treated:

1. Treatment With Heparin or Low Molecular Weight Heparin

Heparins are a class of molecules that behave as anticoagulants. They prevent the formation of clots in the blood, and thereby reduce the chances of getting deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms. This treatment will continue for at least 6 weeks after delivery.

2. Warfarin

It is an anticoagulant that is very efficient in treating DVT and PE, but is not recommended in pregnant women due to its side-effects, such as internal bleeding and tissue damage. A couple of weeks after you have given birth, your obstetrician can prescribe warfarin until all the blood clots have disappeared.

3. Inferior Vena Cava Filters

New research is showing the promise of a technique which involves surgically inserting a small device into the inferior vena cava of the heart, to reduce the risk of pulmonary embolisms. However, it has been found to increase the occurrence of deep vein thrombosis.

Prevention

Due to the critical nature of pregnancy blood clots, there are some things that you must compulsorily do to keep them away from you and your child.

1. Stay Active

This is the most important advice. In addition to advancing your cardiovascular health, getting physically active will keep your circulation in peak condition and not give your blood a chance to clot. However, always ask your healthcare provider before you indulge in any kind of exercise while pregnant, especially if you are overweight. If you are medically advised to take bed rest during your pregnancy, anticoagulant medicines can keep the blood clots at bay.

2. Invest in Compression Pants

Wearing compression clothing will prevent damage to your veins and improve blood flow. This will also lower the chances of DVT.

3. Keep Moving

Even if you have an active lifestyle, try not to remain seated or lying down when you’re at home or at work. Stand up now and then, or take a short walk around the house or the office before getting back to what you were doing. Keep your leg muscles relaxed by giving them regular massages. If you’re travelling, make sure you get up and move around the bus, train, or plane at least every half an hour.

4. Drink Water

This is something crucial to our health, yet we still forget to do it enough. Most people need at least 2 litres of water a day. Pregnant women will do better drinking 3 to 4 litres every day.

5. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

Eating a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, is important to stay healthy. Avoid smoking and alcohol, as the former irritates the artery linings, and the latter thins the blood.

Taking precautions against the dangers posed by blood clots is one of the most important things you can do to safeguard the health of your baby and yourself. It’s important to remember to stay calm, and take the necessary measures, such as seeking medical attention, at the right time. Take everything one step at a time, and you will find yourself being able to handle the toughest of decisions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support when you need it, as you’ll soon be out of this difficult yet rewarding time.