The Role of Headache in the Classification and Management of Hypertensive Disorders in Pregnancy

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Abstract

Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy remain among the leading causes of maternal morbidity and mortality. The onset of headaches in patients with hypertensive disorders of pregnancy has been considered as a premonitory symptom for eclampsia and other adverse maternal outcomes. Headaches are very common symptoms during pregnancy and the postpartum period with a reported incidence of 39%; however, headache is absent in 30–50% of women before the onset of eclampsia and is a poor predictor of eclampsia and adverse maternal outcomes. If included in the definition of cerebral or visual disturbances, headache may be considered a symptom of preeclampsia, a diagnostic feature of preeclampsia with severe features, a premonitory symptom of eclampsia, and an indication for delivery. Inclusion of this nonspecific symptom in the diagnosis and management of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy in the absence of an evidence basis may lead to unintended consequences including excessive testing, visits to outpatient offices or emergency departments, additional hospitalization, and iatrogenic preterm delivery without proven benefit. If a cerebral disturbance such as severe or persistent headache presents for the first time during pregnancy or postpartum, an evaluation should be performed that considers a broad differential diagnosis, including but not limited to hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, and the diagnostic evaluation is similar to that in nonpregnant adults. This commentary draws attention to the implications of considering the cerebral disturbance of headache as a symptom that portends adverse pregnancy outcome in the current recommendations for diagnosing and managing hypertensive disorders of pregnancy.

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