Postpartum

Common Medical Conditions Postpartum Moms Should Be Aware Of

written by CARMEN GARCIA-SHUSHTARI
Source: RODNAE Productions / Pexels
Source: RODNAE Productions / Pexels

The love that you feel when you hold your little baby in your arms after waiting nine months to meet them is indescribable. When women become mothers, they too are reborn into a new version of themselves. So much of a woman’s life changes: her body, her heart, her priorities, her free time—all of it is anew. 

Yet, the excitement about the new baby during the postpartum period can also be layered with stress and complications caused by all the changes. The postpartum stage is a time of adjustment for mommy and baby. For example, mothers may struggle with accepting their postpartum bodies because they just want to feel and look like their old selves again. A woman’s body postpartum may experience other health issues that can become more serious if not examined by a medical professional.

We know new moms may have limited time to do much else besides care for their newborn baby, and we would like to offer some guidance on how to support a mother’s postpartum well-being. We interviewed two OB-GYN doctors, Dr. Tejumola Adegoke and Dr. LaKedra Pam, to inquire about common medical conditions postpartum moms should be aware of.

Meet the expert
Dr. Tejumola Adegoke
OB-GYN at Boston Medical Center
Meet the expert
Dr. LaKedra Pam
Assistant Professor at the Boston University School of Medicine
Dr. Pam is also the director of medical student education in the OB-GYN department with a speciality in caring for incarcerated patients.

Medical terminology can sound a lot like alphabet soup, especially if you’re Googling a medical condition while sleep deprived with a new baby. Below are some of the most common medical conditions postpartum moms may face as well as their symptoms. This is not an exhaustive list; instead, this is intended to curate the black hole of internet searching so mommies can feel reassured and equipped with the information they need to consult with a medical professional when appropriate. 

Below is valuable medical advice shared by both Dr. Pam and Dr. Adegoke intended to empower postpartum moms to be informed on how best to support their own health. Both doctors expressed the importance of postpartum moms being in close contact with their doctor or care team. We know having any of these symptoms can be alarming, but by consulting with your doctor, they can provide you with the appropriate guidance and treatment to care for your health. Dr. Pam shared, “If anything feels wrong, providers want to know about it! We would rather look into something that turns out not to be serious than not hear about something that ends up causing major problems.”

*Compiled medical conditions, symptoms, and treatments below are from both Dr. Adegoke and Dr. Pam. 

 

Blood Clots and Hemorrhage

 

Deep Vein Thrombosis/Embolism

Deep vein thrombosis/embolism means blood clots forming in the body’s larger inner veins. This commonly happens in the legs but can occur throughout the body. These clots can potentially travel to the lungs as a pulmonary embolism.

The risk of blood clots is significantly higher during pregnancy and up to six weeks after giving birth. Symptoms include:

  • Blood clots in the lung (pulmonary emboli) can cause chest pain and difficulty breathing.
  • Blood clots in the deep veins of the arms or legs can cause swelling on the side with the clot.

 

Postpartum Hemorrhage

This condition is heavier-than-normal bleeding after delivery. It most commonly occurs within a day or two of delivery, but in some people, it can occur several days or even weeks later.

Bleeding for up to several weeks after a delivery is very common. In general, this bleeding should be about the same as, or slightly heavier than, a period. But symptoms of a postpartum hemorrhage can include:

  • Seeing large clots of blood
  • Having bleeding that rapidly soaks through pads

Read one mom’s story on having postpartum hemorrhage and how she overcame this traumatic experience.

 

Blood Pressure

Gestational hypertension (high blood pressure in pregnancy) and preeclampsia (a condition where pregnant people or new mothers develop high blood pressure and high levels of protein in their urine) are commonly diagnosed during the pregnancy but can also appear for the first time during the postpartum period.

 

Gestational Hypertension Symptoms

High blood pressure (>140/90) is characteristic of gestational hypertension and preeclampsia. 

 

Preeclampsia Symptoms

People with preeclampsia can have damage to organs like the kidney, liver, lungs, and brain. Symptoms may also include:

  • Severe headaches that don’t improve with medication
  • Visual disturbances (spots, flashing lights, vision loss, floaters)
  • Pain may occur in the right upper corner of the abdomen or in the center between the rib cage and belly button
  • Chest pain and trouble breathing
  • Severe swelling in the hands, feet, and face

Preeclampsia can also progress to seizures (a condition known as eclampsia). The risk of seizures is much higher for people with headaches and/or vision changes.

 

Treatment for Preeclampsia

If you experience chest pain, difficulty breathing, swelling where one arm or leg is much bigger than the other or any of the symptoms of preeclampsia, this could be a medical emergency. Consult your medical team immediately.

Read one mom’s story about her experience with preeclampsia and the lessons she learned after giving birth.

 

postpartum mom

Source: William Fortunato | Pexels

 

Breast Health

This appears as blocked mild flow in the breast or inflammation and can result in infection of breast tissue. 

 

Breast Engorgement

This can involve swelling and tightness in the breasts that is common in the first five to 10 days of breastfeeding. In severe cases, the breasts may also feel hard and warm with throbbing or aching pain.

 

Clogged Duct Symptoms

Symptoms of a clogged duct can include pain and a hard lump or a warm and painful spot or wedge on the breast. 

 

Mastitis Symptoms

Mastitis can cause pain, swelling, redness, and warmth of the affected breast. In some cases, you might experience fever, fatigue, body aches, and chills.

 

Treatment for Clogged Duct/Breast Engorgement

To relieve breast engorgement or a clogged duct, breast/chest/bodyfeed, pump or manually express milk frequently (every one to two hours), and try to completely drain the breast each time. It is actually better for both you and the baby to continue breastfeeding or pumping from the affected breast.

Taking a warm shower or applying warm compresses beforehand can help with milk let-down. Wearing an appropriately sized, supportive bra can also reduce symptoms. You can also apply cold packs to the breast in between feeding/pumping/expression to reduce swelling. Medications like Tylenol and ibuprofen can help with the discomfort.

 

Treatment for Mastitis

Mastitis can usually be treated with antibiotics. Your provider might also perform an ultrasound to check for abscesses (pockets of pus) in the breast that may need to be drained. It is safe and important to continue breastfeeding or pumping from the affected breast throughout. The milk is still safe for the baby. Medications like Tylenol and ibuprofen can help with the discomfort and reduce fevers.

 

Pelvic Health

This involves strain to the pelvic muscles from the pregnancy and/or the birth. 

 

Pelvic Floor Muscle Dysfunction

Symptoms of pelvic floor problems can manifest with pain in the belly, back, hips, vagina, or upper thighs.

Physical therapy, especially with a pelvic floor specialist, can be highly beneficial. Medications (ibuprofen, Tylenol), stretching, and warm compresses can help manage symptoms.

 

Pelvic Organ Prolapse

This is a condition resulting in “dropping” of pelvic floor organs including the bladder, uterus, vagina, small intestines, or the rectum.

Symptoms for pelvic organ prolapse can present as:

  • A bulge or pressure in the vagina
  • Some people may also have constipation, difficulty urinating, or pain with intercourse

Read one mom’s story with vaginal prolapse.

 

Urinary Incontinence

This incontinence is defined as loss of bladder control causing unintentional urine leakage. There are two main types of urinary incontinence, but stress incontinence (leaking urine with sneezing, coughing, laughing, or exercise) is most common after birth. 

 

Treatment for Pelvic Organ Prolapse/Urinary Incontinence

The OB-GYN doctors shared that pelvic floor muscle (kegel) exercises where you squeeze and relax the pelvic floor muscles several times a day can reduce leakage and decrease pressure/bulge sensation with prolapse.

Placing a pessary (a flexible device that is inserted into the vagina) can help support pelvic floor organs and prevent leaking. In some cases, injecting “bulking agents” into the muscle of the urethra or surgery to place a sling under the urethra may be helpful for treatment of incontinence. Surgical repair of areas with pelvic organ prolapse is also an option. Pelvic floor physical therapy can help with both of these conditions.

 

Vaginal Dryness

This condition can occur because of hormone changes around the birth and is more common for people who are breastfeeding.

Read what one expert shared in terms of sex after baby and other common postpartum questions.

 

Postpartum Mental Health

It is common for new mothers to experience mood changes after birth. This can range from “baby blues” (milder symptoms for a short period of time) to postpartum depression, which is more severe and lasts longer. Rarely, new mothers can experience postpartum psychosis, where mood changes are accompanied by other concerning signs.

Postpartum anxiety and depression can feel isolating, but you shouldn’t have to feel as though you’re going through it alone. Please reach out to your doctor, a therapist, or another trusted professional for support.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions, please get help immediately. 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

Crisis Textline: text CONNECT to 741741

 

Baby Blues Symptoms

Mood swings, crying spells, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.

 

Postpartum Depression Symptoms

Postpartum depression symptoms are similar to baby blues but are more severe and last longer. Additional symptoms include:

  • Decreased interest in activity/difficulty getting motivated
  • Problems concentrating
  • Appetite or weight changes (both loss and gain)
  • Abnormally rapid or slow movements (psychomotor agitation or retardation)
  • Excessive sleep or insomnia
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness and suicidal ideation (thoughts of harming yourself)
  • Some mothers also experience thoughts of harming others, including the baby

 

Treatment for Baby Blues/Postpartum Depression

Both conditions are fairly common and can be treated with social support, talk therapy, and/or medication … [to] help manage symptoms, according to Dr. Pam and Dr. Adegoke.

Note that some postpartum moms may not realize they have postpartum depression until months after giving birth.

 

postpartum mom

Source: Sarah Chai | Pexels

 

Postpartum Anxiety

Although neither doctor mentioned this condition as it can fall under the “postpartum blues/depression” section, we wanted to bring this to your attention as a condition to also be aware of. According to Harvard Medical School, symptoms may overlap with postpartum depression but can involve panic attacks or obsessive compulsive disorder. Note that “not all mothers suffering from anxiety are depressed.”

You are not alone if you are going through postpartum anxiety. Read about how one mom managed her postpartum anxiety to learn about how best to support your own well-being.

 

Postpartum Psychosis Symptoms

This can involve any of the symptoms of depression or baby blues, accompanied by hallucinations, delusions, and/or abnormal thought or speech patterns.

If you or your loved ones think you have delusions, paranoia, or other signs of postpartum psychosis, call 911 right away. 

 

Postpartum Thyroiditis

A condition resulting in inflammation of the thyroid (a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the front of the neck).

 

Symptoms of Postpartum Thyroiditis

  • Hyperthyroidism: tremors, anxiety, palpitations, weight loss or
  • Hypothyroidism: fatigue, constipation, memory loss, cold intolerance, muscle cramps, weight gain

 

Treatment for Postpartum Thyroiditis

This condition may need treatment depending on how severe the symptoms are. If you are experiencing symptoms of hyperthyroidism, your provider may recommend beta blockers to slow down your heart rate. If you are experiencing symptoms of hypothyroidism, you may need thyroid hormone replacement.

 

Other Postpartum Infections

These types of infections affect many people who have recently delivered. Wound infections can occur in places where stitches have been placed, such as the abdominal incision of a C-section or the place where a vaginal tear was stitched. Infections that occur inside the uterus postpartum are called endometritis or endomyometritis. People who are lactating can also have an infection of the breast tissue called mastitis (detailed above).

 

Symptoms of Postpartum Infections

Infections generally—but don’t always—cause symptoms of fevers and chills. If the infection is located in a visible spot like the breast or a surgical scar, the skin may become red, appear swollen, and be very tender to the touch. A uterine infection can cause severe pain deep in the pelvis as well as discharge with a significant odor that looks different from the normal bleeding after a birth.

 

Preventative Measures for Common Postpartum Medical Conditions

Both Dr. Adegoke and Dr. Pam advised mothers to maintain their health as a general preventative measure during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Maintaining a balanced diet, avoiding tobacco, and engaging in regular physical activity (when cleared by your doctor) are ways mothers can support their long-term well-being. However, both doctors stressed that many of these medical conditions cannot be easily avoided or have an easy “preventative” fix. Dr. Pam wants moms to know that “there is no such thing as ‘doing everything right’ to prevent [these common postpartum medical conditions].” 

 

There is no such thing as ‘doing everything right’ to prevent [these common postpartum medical conditions].

 

Sometimes, mothers unfortunately get diagnosed with these common medical conditions with no clear reason as to what caused them.

The period after giving birth can be a challenging time for mom for many reasons beyond just medical issues. “It is really important for postpartum moms to give themselves lots of grace and remember that they are not alone—anything they are experiencing has also happened to someone else,” Dr. Adegoke said. Maintaining close communication with your medical provider and expressing your concerns can be the strongest forms of prevention for postpartum mamas.

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