Pregnancy and birth is a time of wonder and awe – and a serious fluctuation of hormone activity in a woman’s body, both before and after she gives birth. Although most women have been warned about “the baby blues,” or transient depression symptoms that can happen a few days to a few weeks following birth, many are not told of a deadlier hormone effect: the pregnancy hormone induced heart attack.
Most people think of heart attacks as something that happens to elderly people, men, obese people, and smokers. While it is true that these categories can raise a chance of heart attack, it is also misleading because so many think that if one doesn’t fall into those categories, they are safe from heart attack. Especially young, seemingly fit women who just gave birth and have no evidence of heart disease who do not fit the image of “heart attack” that most people have in mind. And while it’s true that a woman’s entire body, including her chest muscles, can be sore after the pushing phase of labor and delivery, she should be attuned to a new sign or symptom, or one that is worsening instead of getting better.
Why are women more prone to heart attack after delivering a baby? The hormonal fluctuation of labor and delivery play a direct role on blood vessels, which can make them more likely to become fragile and rupture. This is known as SCAD – Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection, and it impedes blood flow to the heart while simultaneously causing massive bleeding. Without treatment, shock and death can occur quickly. That’s why it is important that new mothers pay attention to the signs and symptoms of their bodies. Soreness, even all over, is normal, but a sudden sharp pain accompanied by sweating, lightheadedness, vomiting, or passing out are not typical reactions to childbirth and should be evaluated immediately, according to WFAA ABC.
Leslie Zeigon had a normal pregnancy and delivery with her third child. She was surprised by feeling lightheaded and weak about 10 days after she gave birth and thought maybe her blood sugar was low. She wanted to lay down and rest, but her parents were visiting and urged her to go to the emergency department of the local hospital. It’s fortunate they were there, because if she had laid down to rest instead, she likely would have died.
Dr. Kevin Theleman, a cardiologist at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center Grapevine, said Leslie was experiencing Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection.
“She literally goes from feeling normal to all of a sudden intense severe chest pressure. There’s nothing she could have done to prevent this. There’s clearly a change in estrogen and progesterone that happens with pregnancy and ongoing into breastfeeding…so some people think that change in hormone actually changes the lining of the blood vessel.”
Zeigon’s heart muscle was literally dying, and once dead, it cannot be saved. Time was of the essence – she had about a 50 percent chance of survival if she got the best treatment available.
Dr. Robert Wai, an OBGYN at Baylor Scott & White Grapevine, said that SCAD patients are more often women than men, are usually physically fit, and non-smokers, and about 20 percent have very recently given birth.
“It seems that a change in hormones and blood flow after delivery are one of the predisposing factors.”
Because this is something that can’t be predicted, women should be wary of any unusual chest pain, difficulty breathing, or lightheadedness after giving birth and call 911 immediately as symptoms appear. SCAD comes on quickly and must be treated surgically. As for Zeigon, she recently finished cardiac rehabilitation and is doing well. If her parents had not pressed her to go to the emergency room, there may have been a tragic outcome instead.
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