Cardiomyopathy [kahr-dee-oh-mahy-OP-uh-thee] is damage or disease of the heart muscle. If your heart muscle is weak, it can be hard for the heart to deliver blood to the body. Peripartum [per-i-PAHR-tuhm] cardiomyopathy is a rare condition in which a pregnant woman’s heart becomes weak and enlarged. The condition develops during the last month of pregnancy or within the first five months after the baby is born.
Your heart has a muscle that pumps blood around your body. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to all parts of your body. If the muscle is damaged, the heart cannot properly pump vital oxygen and nutrients to organs in your body. This can lead to heart failure, and in some cases, even death.
In pregnant women with cardiomyopathy, the chambers of the heart become enlarged, and the heart muscle weakens. In many cases, symptoms of peripartum cardiomyopathy are mistaken for common pregnancy ailments, such as swelling in the legs and feet and shortness of breath.
Common symptoms of peripartum cardiomyopathy include:
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Swelling of the ankles and feet
- Persistent cough
- Low blood pressure
The underlying cause of peripartum cardiomyopathy is often unknown. There are risk factors that may increase a woman’s chance of developing cardiomyopathy during pregnancy. These risk factors include:
- History of heart problems
- Prior viral illnesses
- Previous pregnancies
- Poor nutrition
Several tests can help your doctor diagnose peripartum cardiomyopathy. Some of these tests include:
- Blood tests, to rule out other causes of the symptoms and to assess the function of vital organs.
- Chest x-rays, to check the size of your heart and to see if you have fluid buildup in your lungs.
- Electrocardiogram (EKG), to check the electrical activity of your heart.
- Echocardiogram, or ultrasound, to create images of your heart. This test can tell your provider how well your heart is pumping blood to the body and if your heart is enlarged.
- Stress tests, to see how your heart responds to stress.
It’s important to highlight that in many cases peripartum cardiomyopathy may be treated with medicines. Many of these medicines are safe for women who are pregnant or who are breastfeeding.
In severe cases of peripartum cardiomyopathy, a woman may need surgery or a heart transplant.
Other methods that can help women manage peripartum cardiomyopathy include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Sticking to a healthy diet
- Quitting smoking
Since the cause of peripartum cardiomyopathy is often unknown, the condition may not be entirely preventable. There are things you can do to reduce your risk, such as:
- Maintain a healthy weight before, during, and after pregnancy
- Avoid smoking
- Avoid drinking alcohol
- Exercise regularly
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