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Pregnancy complications: what you need to know


Falling pregnant is freaking exciting. But it can also be freaking stressful. How do you dress a bump, what do you actually need for a nursery, is my baby doing ok?! 

It’s normal and very common to worry your ass off about whether your little one is growing as they should and if your pregnancy will go to plan – particularly if it’s your first time growing a human, or you’ve experienced the heartbreak of pregnancy loss before. Most pregnancies occur without complication. However, some do – about 8 per cent, according to the experts at Johns Hopkins. But, with knowledge comes power. So to help ease your worry in any way we can, here are six of the more common complications that can occur during pregnancy, what to look out for, and the potential paths for treatment or seeking help.

Who is at risk of pregnancy complications?

Pregnancy with complications is what the medical world would call a high-risk pregnancy – where you or your baby, or both, are at increased risk of experiencing one or more health issues before, during, or after delivery. Those with certain medical conditions (like diabetes, epilepsy, obesity, poorly controlled asthma, and infections), a history of pregnancy complications, or age 35+ are most likely to face a high-risk pregnancy. 

However, pregnancy complications can happen to anyone (though not everyone). They might result from pre-existing health conditions or issues that arise during pregnancy, from factors in your control or, in most cases, factors out of your control. They might present as a minor discomfort or involve life-threatening consequences for you and your babe (#$%!). Let’s have a look.

What complications can occur during pregnancy? 


Chemical pregnancy

A chemical pregnancy is a short-term pregnancy that ends in miscarriage before five weeks. It’s called a chemical pregnancy because hormones in your body indicate pregnancy (which is why you might see two lines on a pregnancy test), but the embryo is too small to see on an ultrasound.

Symptoms

Because it happens so early on and before you might notice any pregnancy symptoms (like fatigue, sore breasts, and nausea), it’s common to experience a chemical pregnancy without realizing it. However, signs include: 

  • Returning a positive pregnancy test, then a negative test a week or two later.
  • Returning a positive pregnancy test with faint lines.
  • Bleeding and cramping around the time your next period is due. 

Diagnosis and treatment

A chemical pregnancy can be confirmed via a blood test. It usually has little effect on your body, so it doesn’t require treatment. However, if you’ve had one or more chemical pregnancies, it might be an indication of fertility issues, so you may consider chatting to a fertility doctor. 

Molar pregnancy

A molar pregnancy is when an egg is fertilized, but rather than developing into a little embryo, it grows into a mass of fluid-filled cells in your uterus. You can experience either a partial molar pregnancy (which may contain some fetal tissue) or a complete molar pregnancy (which will not develop a recognizable fetus). 

A molar pregnancy is caused by chromosomal abnormalities in either your egg or your partner’s sperm that disrupt how the embryo grows. It does not result in a viable pregnancy (except in very rare cases). To make matters crappier, it can have serious health effects for you if left untreated – think tumors or even a ruptured uterus. 

Symptoms

Vaginal bleeding and nausea are the most common molar pregnancy symptoms. However, these can occur during early pregnancy too, so other signs to look out for – which will be monitored by your doctor – include: 

  • Anemia 
  • Pelvic pressure or discomfort
  • High blood pressure
  • Abnormal uterus sizing compared to fetus age 

Diagnosis and treatment

A molar pregnancy is typically diagnosed by ultrasound. Depending on the prognosis, your doctor might recommend surgery to remove the abnormal tissue from your uterus. 

Ectopic pregnancy

An ectopic pregnancy is when a fertilized egg implants itself outside the uterus (i.e. not where it’s meant to be). This might be your fallopian tubes, cervix, or abdomen. Not only does it sadly result in an unviable pregnancy, but it can be life-threatening for you if left unmanaged. If the embryo continues to grow, it can rupture wherever it has implanted (e.g, your cervix or abdomen). 

Symptoms

Ectopic pregnancy symptoms include lower abdominal cramping, shoulder pain, weakness, and/or dizziness, alongside typical pregnancy symptoms like fatigue and sore boobs. Abdominal cramping, shoulder pain, weakness, and/or dizziness, in particular, can be signs of a rupture, so if you experience these, run, don’t walk (not literally, but you get what we mean) to your doctor. 

Diagnosis and treatment

Your doctor might diagnose an ectopic pregnancy via blood tests or ultrasound. Then, depending on how far along you are in pregnancy, it’s treated by medication that stops the embryo from growing (after which the tissue is absorbed into your body) or keyhole surgery to remove said embryo. 

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that pops up for the first time during pregnancy. Its hallmark is high blood sugar levels that your body isn’t able to regulate. Gestational diabetes is easily treated and often disappears after birth. However, if left untreated, it can lead to premature delivery or stillbirth, and even increase your baby’s chances of developing diabetes later in life. 

Symptoms

Symptoms to monitor for include blurred vision and frequent vaginal/bladder/skin infections, as well as unusual thirst, nausea, fatigue, and a frequent need to pee. Some of these symptoms are common in pregnancy, so it can be hard to determine what’s cause for concern. Speak to your doctor if anything feels unusual.  

Diagnosis and treatment

Gestational diabetes is diagnosed by a test that all moms do around week 24-28 of pregnancy. Some women are at greater risk of developing gestational diabetes, so may be tested earlier and more frequently, including those who:

  • Are 35+
  • Are overweight
  • Have a history of diabetes 
  • Are carrying a multiple pregnancy – where you’re carrying two or more babies (hello twins!). 

If you develop gestational diabetes, your doctor will help you with tips to manage your diet and exercise and monitor your blood glucose levels. They might also recommend insulin therapy. 

Placenta previa

Here’s a bit of biology for you: your placenta is a structure that grows inside your uterus during pregnancy to, amongst other things, provide oxygen and nutrition for your baby. Unfortunately, because our bodies are wild and wonderful things, sometimes the placenta might cover your cervix – an event called placenta previa. Placenta previa can lead to an increased risk of preterm birth, emergency cesarean birth, and severe, life-threatening bleeding during labor and delivery. 

Symptoms

The main symptom of placenta previa is bright red vaginal bleeding during the second or third trimester. If you experience this, call your doctor ASAP; if the bleeding is heavy, hustle to your nearest emergency department. 

Diagnosis and treatment

Placenta previa is generally diagnosed via ultrasound, either after a bleeding episode or early in pregnancy, if you are at particular risk of developing it (e.g., if you’ve experienced it before, you’re carrying a multiple pregnancy, or you’re 35+). Unfortunately, there’s no cure for placenta previa. However, you and your doctor can manage it through rest, blood transfusions, or even early delivery, depending on the severity. 

Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is a condition characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to your organs, usually your liver and kidneys. If untreated, it can cause issues including restricted growth for your babe, and organ damage, cardiovascular disease, or placental abruption (where your placenta separates from the wall of your uterus) for you. 

Symptoms

A rise in your blood pressure can be one indication of preeclampsia. You might also experience nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, changes in vision, and upper abdominal pain. However, many of these symptoms are similar to what you may feel during pregnancy, meaning it can be hard to determine what’s normal and what’s not. If you’re unsure at all about anything, you’re experiencing, hot-foot it to your doctor. 

Diagnosis and treatment

Your doctor will review your blood pressure during regular prenatal visits and recommend a course of action – including further blood and urine tests – should any changes be noted. The most effective way to treat preeclampsia is by having your baby. However, if it’s simply too early in your pregnancy to deliver, you’ll likely need additional prenatal visits and monitoring until birth. 

If things get really complicated

As you’ve read, some of these pregnancy complications can be managed through treatment and extra medical care. But, devastatingly, others can end in a non-viable pregnancy or even miscarriage. Miscarriage symptoms include those we mentioned above: vaginal bleeding, cramping, the disappearance of pregnancy symptoms, as well as back pain and strange fluid or tissue discharge. If you think you’re experiencing signs of miscarriage, speak to your doctor. They can help diagnose what might be happening. 

These are by no means all the possible complications that can occur during pregnancy. Nor will they present precisely the same woman to woman. But, there are two trends here. First, prenatal care is goddamn necessary – and life-saving in some cases. Second, complications, including a loss, at any stage of pregnancy, can be horrendous. So, get yourself a solid medical and mental health support team, go to your appointments, and continue to do so throughout pregnancy and your journey to parenthood. 

We made it, mama. Wow, that got heavy. Go for a walk, put on some Beyonce, hug someone. Remember that complications happen and for a range of reasons, but that they’re rare, and more importantly, you haven’t done anything wrong

The information in this article does not replace medical advice. And it sure doesn’t replace the help of a trained mental health professional if it’s triggered anything for you. So if you’re concerned or need help, speak to your doctor or a support network like March of Dimes.

Johns Hopkins Medicine, 4 Common Pregnancy Complications

Mayo Clinic, High-risk pregnancy: Know what to expect

American Pregnancy Association, Gestational Diabetes

Mayo Clinic, Placenta previa

Mayo Clinic, Preeclampsia

Verywell Family, What Is a Chemical Pregnancy?

Verywell Family, What Is Molar Pregnancy?

Verywell Family, What Is Ectopic Pregnancy?

Verywell Family, What Is Miscarriage?

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