Pregnancy and Childbirth Can Cause Lingering Health Issues

From postpartum depression to increased risk of heart attack and stroke, complications can be severe and long-term.
Dec 4, 2020
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Pregnancy and Childbirth Can Cause Lingering Health IssuesPregnancy and Childbirth Can Cause Lingering Health Issues
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Those complications can be mental and emotional. Pregnancy and childbirth can have extraordinary mental and emotional effects on the mother, many of which go undiagnosed.
Having a baby can be one of the most exciting and fulfilling new challenges. Alongside the late-night feedings and diaper changes, however, many women have to deal with mental health problems that their husbands do not. The "baby blues," where women experience bouts of crying and sadness in the week following childbirth, affects at least half of all mothers. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that 50–75% of women experience these symptoms. Up to 15% of those women will develop full-blown postpartum depression, with symptoms such as frequent crying, anxiety, irritability, and fatigue. Those symptoms can last from a few weeks up to a full year. Part of what can be challenging about treating PPD is that it presents differently in different women. For some new mothers, it’s an intense anxiety about failing their new child, while for others it has more of the hallmarks of traditional, clinical depression (such as a lack of interest in usual activities and feelings of sadness). About 400,000 to 800,000 mothers in the U.S. suffer annually from PPD, though that number may be an underestimation. One study found that up to 50% of cases of PPD will go undiagnosed. Undiagnosed PPD affects women of color disproportionately. Only a single drug has been developed and approved to treat PPD in the U.S. Women are often treated with anti-depressants or talk therapy. Left untreated, PPD can greatly reduce a woman’s quality of life—and sometimes even end in suicide. And a new study found that women who experienced postpartum depression for several months were at a heightened risk of developing long-term, clinical depression that lingered for years. The researchers also found that a mother's depression could have negative effects on her kids: the children of women who suffered from this kind of prolonged depression were twice as likely to have behavioral problems as the children of women who did not.
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They can also be physical and even life-threatening. This can temporarily affect a mother’s lifestyle or responsibilities or permanently impact her physical health and well-being.
Mothers can be placed on bed rest This reduces a woman's ability to work, care for other children, or even complete basic tasks.
Being placed on bed rest is a common occurrence during pregnancy and can result from a variety of conditions. High blood pressure, cervical changes, vaginal bleeding, premature labor, poor fetal development, gestational diabetes, and placenta complications are just a few of the conditions that may lead to a woman being placed on bed rest for as long as several months. Bed rest is prescribed to thousands of women each year. Its severity can range from simply taking it easy to literally limiting women to their beds for months on end. One woman, for instance, was put on bed rest for several months when she already had a 3-year-old daughter. Her husband was forced to quit his full-time job in order to take care of them both. Confined to the couch or the bed, the woman told NPR: "I wouldn't even get my own glasses of water. So I like to say that 'I was on bed rest, and he was on house arrest,' because he really couldn't leave either."
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Wounds can become infected, and other complications can be severe. Occurrences of serious complications during childbirth are rising in the U.S. and can threaten the lives of both mother and child.
Bacteria that are typically active in the vagina before pregnancy can cause an infection in open wounds after a mother delivers her baby. This bacteria can affect the uterus and areas around the uterus. There is typically a low chance of developing these infections unless the woman is young and there is an unscheduled cesarean, or a long delivery with excessive bleeding. About one in three women deliver their babies via C-section. Of those women, as many as 18% will go on to develop chronic pain from the scar tissue resulting from that surgery. One young mother lost nearly half her body's blood during her c-section. After a week in the hospital, she thought the worst was over, but she went on to develop chronic pain around the scar tissue where the incision was made. Common complications during childbirth include perineal tears (when the area between the vagina and the anus tears or is surgically cut), excessive bleeding, perinatal asphyxia (when the child does not get enough oxygen), and abnormal heart rate of the baby. Many of these conditions also go unmonitored after childbirth because women are so focused on their child's health that they neglect their own. One study found that as many as 40% of women don't go to their own doctor's appointment check-up after giving birth. Kristen Terlizzi, who cofounded the National Accreta Foundation, had her uterus, appendix, and part of her bladder removed in 2014 because of a life-threatening placenta condition. “There’s this misconception that these complications are rare,” she told ProPublica. “And we [women] get brushed off — ‘The risk is not a big deal.’ But it is.” A 2017 investigation from ProPublica found that serious complications during childbirth in the U.S. were "skyrocketing." More than 50,000 women suffer severe complications each year—a number that has doubled since the 1990s. Women who survive severe complications often deal with long-term consequences such as severe pain, the inability to give birth again, and intense trauma. Emergency hysterectomies, for instance, have risen 60%. Not only is a hysterectomy an invasive surgery with a potentially long recovery time, but it renders women unable to get pregnant again. In 2014 alone, doctors in the U.S. had to carry out 4,000 emergency hysterectomies.
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They can die. The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country.
Kameleon007, iStock by Getty
In the United States, approximately 700 women die each year as a result of complications from child birth. This rate has been decreasing by approximately 38% annually over the last 20 years, but it remains high, especially for women of color. And the rate of maternal mortality in the U.S. is higher than that of any other industrialized country. Women are advised to monitor themselves post-childbirth for warning signs of blood clots, infections, and hemorrhage, which can be potentially life-threatening. Some of the complications during pregnancy and childbirth—such as pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes—put women at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke throughout the rest of their lives. "Both of these conditions are associated with basically a doubling in their lifelong risk for cardiovascular disease," Dr. Lisa Hollier, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told NPR. Severe complications—such as kidney, heart, or liver failure; bleeding in the brain or long-term comas—can also be fatal for mothers.
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