What is peripartum cardiomyopathy?

Women's Care
Aug 3, 2023

St. Joseph’s/Candler OB/GYN Dr. Jerry Lucas explains this rare, but devasting condition

It’s not a very common condition, but particularly in the South and especially in young African-American women, OB/GYNs are diagnosing peripartum cardiomyopathy more often.

Cardiomyopathy is any disorder that affects the heart muscle. It causes the heart to lose its ability to pump blood out to the body as it should and therefore backs up, explains St. Joseph’s/Candler OB/GYN Dr. Jerry Lucas.

Peripartum cardiomyopathy occurs late in pregnancy or more commonly following delivery.

“In most cases, because it happens around the time of delivery, it’s not going to have an impact on the infant, and it’s most commonly seen right after deliver,” Dr. Lucas says. “Usually, you’ll have a wonderful, healthy baby and then mom gets sick all of the sudden and is not able to take care of baby or herself.” Dr. Jerry Lucas, Savannah OB/GYN

Signs of peripartum cardiomyopathy can be shortness of breath, tightness in the chest or wheezing.

Who is at risk for peripartum cardiomyopathy is hard to say. While it is more common in young African-American women, it has occurred in all ethnicities and socio-economic groups, Dr. Lucas says. Genetics may play a role, but more research still needs to be done.

“The important thing is to recognize it and recognize it early because it can lead to congestive heart failure and other conditions, even death,” Dr. Lucas says.

To diagnose peripartum cardiomyopathy, your physician may first order a CAT scan to rule out other conditions, such as a pulmonary embolism, which has similar symptoms.

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Then, you may undergo an echo cardiogram to really look at the efficiency of the heart. Normally, the heart should have an ejection fraction (the amount of blood that your heart pumps each time it beats) of 60 percent or higher. In people who have cardiomyopathy – whether peripartum or another type – that is lower. Dr. Lucas has seen ejection fractions as low as 20 percent before.

The good news is it can be treated, and Dr. Lucas has had patients return to as close to a normal life as possible. The condition may require medication that you take the rest of your life. However, in it’s worse state, peripartum cardiomyopathy may require a heart transplant.

Additionally, moms diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy are strongly advised not to get pregnant again because it can reach the point where it becomes fatal.

“Imagine a 22-year-old who just had her first baby and now may need a heart transplant and is told she shouldn’t get pregnant again,” Dr. Lucas says. “It’s not a very common condition, but it is certainly a very devastating one.”

But Dr. Lucas does remind women who go through this it can be treated.

“You can in a lot of cases help the heart with its efficiency and try to return to a normal lifestyle,” Dr. Lucas says. “I have had patients that do that.”


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