Pregnancy and Stroke

pregnant woman reads tablet in bed

What is a stroke and why does pregnancy increase risk? 

A stroke is a life-threatening condition. It occurs when blood flow to part of the brain is blocked or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. It may cause parts of the brain to become damaged or die.

Pregnancy may elevate some women’s risk for stroke. Although pregnancy-related strokes are rare, the rate is rising, which is a dangerous trend. Stroke can cause lasting brain damage, long-term disability or death.

Managing your risk factors, especially blood pressure, knowing the warning signs of stroke and taking early action are important. Prompt medical care when a stroke happens is essential. Some treatments work only if given quickly after symptoms start.

Who is at risk of stroke during pregnancy?

Researchers are still learning why some women have pregnancy-related strokes. One reason might be that the demands of pregnancy on a woman’s body make the heart work harder. Also, changing hormones may contribute to a woman’s risk of stroke.

The third trimester and the first six weeks after delivery are the most likely time for stroke to occur. Women of color have a higher stroke risk related to pregnancy than do white women.

Common stroke risk factors during pregnancy include:

  • High blood pressure during pregnancy. This is the leading cause of stroke in pregnant women or women who have recently given birth.

  • Preeclampsia. The condition is a dangerous type of high blood pressure during pregnancy.

  • Gestational diabetes. The condition causes high blood sugar that can affect the health of both the mother and baby. It also raises the chance of high blood pressure during pregnancy.

  • Blood clots. Pregnancy makes blood more likely to clot. Clotting is linked to swelling and blood not circulating well, which can lead to stroke.

Preeclampsia and gestational diabetes can also raise stroke risk later in life. 

What are the symptoms of stroke during pregnancy?

Many common stroke symptoms are similar to other problems related to pregnancy. However, symptoms that appear suddenly are often associated with a stroke.

Use the letters in "F.A.S.T." to spot a stroke and know when to call for emergency help — Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 911.

Other sudden symptoms during pregnancy include:

  • Numbness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Confusion
  • Vision trouble
  • Dizziness, loss of balance, lack of coordination or trouble walking
  • Severe headache with no known cause 

How can women minimize their risk of stroke during pregnancy?

Women can lower their stroke risk in several ways before getting pregnant. A healthy lifestyle and regular medical visits are key. Also, women should:

  • Avoid smoking.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat nutritious foods.
  • Keep active with at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days.
  • Follow the advice of her health care team.