In thromboembolic disorders, blood clots (thrombi) form in blood vessels. An embolus is a blood clot that travels through the bloodstream and blocks an artery. In the United States, thromboembolic disorders are a common cause of death in pregnant women.
The risk of developing a thromboembolic disorder is increased for about 6 to 8 weeks after delivery. Most complications due to blood clots result from injuries that occur during delivery. The risk is much higher after cesarean delivery than after vaginal delivery.
Blood clots usually form in the superficial veins of the legs as thrombophlebitis (see see Superficial Venous Thrombosis) or in the deep veins of the legs as deep vein thrombosis (see Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)). Symptoms can include leg swelling, pain, and tenderness. The severity of the symptoms does not correlate with the severity of the disease. Deep vein thrombosis may also develop in the pelvis. There, it may not cause symptoms. A clot can move from the deep veins of the legs or pelvis to the lungs. There, the clot may block one or more lung (pulmonary) arteries. This blockage, called pulmonary embolism (see Pulmonary Embolism (PE)), can be life threatening.
During pregnancy, if women have symptoms suggesting a blood clot, Doppler ultrasonography (used to evaluate blood flow) may be done to check the legs for clots.
If pulmonary embolism is suspected, computed tomography (CT—see see Diagnosis) may be done to confirm the diagnosis. CT is relatively safe during pregnancy. If the diagnosis of pulmonary embolism is still uncertain, a procedure called pulmonary angiography (see Chest Imaging) is required.
If a blood clot is detected, heparin (an anticoagulant) is started without delay. Heparin may be injected into a vein (intravenously) or under the skin (subcutaneously). Heparin does not cross the placenta and cannot harm the fetus. Treatment is continued for 3 to 6 months. Then, to prevent new blood clots from forming, doctors give the woman heparin at a lower dose for at least 6 to 8 weeks after delivery. During this time, the risk of blood clots remains high.
After delivery, warfarin may be used instead of heparin, particularly if women require treatment for more than 6 to 8 weeks. Warfarin can be taken by mouth, has a lower risk of complications than heparin, and can be taken by women who are breastfeeding.
Women who have had a blood clot during a previous pregnancy may be given heparin (an anticoagulant) during subsequent pregnancies to prevent blood clots from forming.
Last full review/revision September 2013 by Lara A. Friel, MD, PhD