Which cardiovascular findings suggest preeclampsia?

Updated: Jun 12, 2018
  • Author: Michael P Carson, MD; Chief Editor: Edward H Springel, MD, FACOG  more...
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Home and ambulatory blood pressure measurements are increasingly being used in the pregnant population. Assuming the blood pressure device is accurate (validated relative to an office measurement), the measurements may provide valuable additional data regarding hypertension severity and control during pregnancy.

In most normal pregnancies, the woman has some lower extremity edema by the third trimester. In contrast, a sudden worsening in dependent edema, edema in nondependent areas (such as the face and hands), or rapid weight gain suggest a pathologic process and warrant further evaluation for preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is a multisystem disease with various physical signs.

Women should be allowed to sit quietly for 5-10 minutes before each blood pressure measurement. Blood pressure should be measured in the sitting position, with the cuff at the level of the heart. Inferior vena caval compression by the gravid uterus while the patient is supine can alter readings substantially, leading to an underestimation of the blood pressure. Similarly, blood pressures measured in the left lateral position may yield falsely low values if the blood pressure is measured in the higher arm, unless the cuff is carefully maintained at the level of the heart.

Korotkoff sounds I (the first sound) and V (the disappearance of sound) should be used to denote the systolic blood pressure (SBP) and DBP, respectively. In about 5% of women, an exaggerated gap exists between the fourth (muffling) and fifth (disappearance) Korotkoff sounds, with the fifth sound approaching zero. In this setting, both the fourth and fifth sounds should be recorded (eg, 120/80/40, with sound I = 120, sound IV = 80, and sound V = 40), because the fourth sound will more closely approximate the true DBP.

Many automated blood pressure cuffs provide reasonable estimates of true blood pressure during normal pregnancy (especially those validated for pregnancy) but tend to underestimate blood pressure in preeclamptic women. Only a few automated blood pressure cuffs have been validated in preeclampsia. Manual blood pressure measurement with a mercury sphygmomanometer remains the criterion standard in this setting.

Maternal SBP greater than 160 mm Hg or DBP greater than 110 mm Hg denotes severe disease; depending on the gestational age and maternal status, delivery should be considered for sustained pressures in this range.

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