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The assessment of blood pressure in pregnant women: pitfalls and novel approaches

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Bibliographical note

Funding Information: A.H.S. has published extensively on blood pressure monitor validation studies and is an expert reviewer for STRIDE BP, the inventor of the CRADLE Vital Signs Alert device, and a chief investigator to subsequent clinical studies (no commercial funding or pecuniary interest). The other authors report no conflict of interest. Publisher Copyright: © 2020 Copyright: Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

King's Authors


Accurate assessment of blood pressure is fundamental to the provision of safe obstetrical care. It is simple, cost effective, and life-saving. Treatments for preeclampsia, including antihypertensive drugs, magnesium sulfate, and delivery, are available in many settings. However, the instigation of appropriate treatment relies on prompt and accurate recognition of hypertension. There are a number of different techniques for blood pressure assessment, including the auscultatory method, automated oscillometric devices, home blood pressure monitoring, ambulatory monitoring, and invasive monitoring. The auscultatory method with a mercury sphygmomanometer and the use of Korotkoff sounds was previously recommended as the gold standard technique. Mercury sphygmomanometers have been withdrawn owing to safety concerns and replaced with aneroid devices, but these are particularly prone to calibration errors and regular calibration is imperative to ensure accuracy. Automated oscillometric devices are straightforward to use, but the physiological changes in healthy pregnancy and pathologic changes in preeclampsia may affect the accuracy of a device and monitors must be validated. Validation protocols classify pregnant women as a “special population,” and protocols must include 15 women in each category of normotensive pregnancy, hypertensive pregnancy, and preeclampsia. In addition to a scarcity of devices validated for pregnancy and preeclampsia, other pitfalls that cause inaccuracy include the lack of training and poor technique. Blood pressure assessment can be affected by maternal position, inappropriate cuff size, conversation, caffeine, smoking, and irregular heart rate. For home blood pressure monitoring, appropriate instruction should be given on how to use the device. The classification of hypertension and hypertensive disorders of pregnancy has recently been revised. These are classified as preeclampsia, transient gestational hypertension, gestational hypertension, white-coat hypertension, masked hypertension, chronic hypertension, and chronic hypertension with superimposed preeclampsia. Blood pressure varies across gestation and by ethnicity, but gestation-specific thresholds have not been adopted. Hypertension is defined as a sustained systolic blood pressure of ≥140 mm Hg or a sustained diastolic blood pressure of ≥90 mm Hg. In some guidelines, the threshold of diagnosis depends on the setting in which blood pressure measurement is taken, with a threshold of 140/90 mm Hg in a healthcare setting, 135/85 mm Hg at home, or a 24-hour average blood pressure on ambulatory monitoring of >126/76 mm Hg. Some differences exist among organizations with respect to the criteria for the diagnosis of preeclampsia and the correct threshold for intervention and target blood pressure once treatment has been instigated. Home blood pressure monitoring is currently a focus for research. Novel technologies, including early warning devices (such as the CRADLE Vital Signs Alert device) and telemedicine, may provide strategies that prompt earlier recognition of abnormal blood pressure and therefore improve management. The purpose of this review is to provide an update on methods to assess blood pressure in pregnancy and appropriate technique to optimize accuracy. The importance of accurate blood pressure assessment is emphasized with a discussion of preeclampsia prediction and treatment of severe hypertension. Classification of hypertensive disorders and thresholds for treatment will be discussed, including novel developments in the field.

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