Is it normal to have shortness of breath during pregnancy?
Shortness of breath during pregnancy is a condition that, as time goes on, can occur after pregnant women perform routine tasks such as climbing stairs. Difficulty breathing should not be a cause for concern for a pregnant woman in such situations, as it happens to many women who experience pregnancy.
According to a 2015 study, about 60 to 70 percent of women experience shortness of breath during pregnancy. Doctors often attribute this to the growing uterus pushing the lungs upward, making it difficult to breathe.
This article will explore all possible causes of shortness of breath during pregnancy. We also cover coping strategies and when to see a doctor.
What causes shortness of breath during pregnancy?
While shortness of breath is a common symptom of pregnancy, it is not always possible for a doctor to pinpoint a single cause. Shortness of breath during pregnancy appears to be due to a variety of factors, from the growing uterus to changes in demands on the heart. Some women may notice changes in their breathing right away, while others may notice differences in the second and third trimesters.
Causes of shortness of breath in the first trimester
The fetus does not have to be very large to cause respiratory changes in a pregnant woman. The diaphragm, a muscular band of tissue that separates the heart and lungs from the abdomen, rises up to 4 centimeters in the first trimester of pregnancy. The movement of the diaphragm helps the lungs fill with air. Some women may not be aware of how deeply they can breathe, while others may find that they cannot breathe fully and deeply.
Besides changes in the diaphragm, pregnant women often breathe faster due to increases in the hormone progesterone. Progesterone plays an important role in fetal development. It is also a respiratory stimulant, meaning it causes a person’s breathing to quicken. The amount of progesterone in a woman’s body will increase throughout pregnancy.
While breathing faster does not necessarily cause shortness of breath, some women may notice changes such as shortness of breath during pregnancy.
Causes of shortness of breath in the second trimester
Pregnant women may experience more pronounced shortness of breath during the second trimester. The growing uterus often contributes to shortness of breath during the second trimester. However, some changes in the way the heart works can also cause shortness of breath.
The amount of blood in a woman’s body increases significantly during pregnancy. To carry this blood throughout the body and into the placenta, the heart has to pump harder. The increased workload on the heart can make you feel short of breath during pregnancy.
Causes of shortness of breath in the third trimester
During the third trimester, breathing may become easier or more difficult, depending largely on the position of the developing baby’s head. Before the baby begins to roll into the pelvis, it may feel as if the baby’s head is under a rib and pressing against the diaphragm, which can make breathing difficult. This type of shortness of breath usually happens between week 31 and week 34 of pregnancy, according to the National Center for Women’s Health.
If a woman is experiencing severe shortness of breath during pregnancy, it’s important to talk to a doctor. While pregnancy changes can cause shortness of breath, other medical conditions can also contribute to this problem.
Medical conditions that can trigger shortness of breath during pregnancy include:
- Asthma: Pregnancy can make existing asthma symptoms worse. Anyone with asthma should talk to a doctor about safe treatments during pregnancy.
- Peripartum cardiomyopathy: This is a type of heart failure that can occur during pregnancy or soon after birth . Symptoms include ankle swelling, low blood pressure, fatigue, and heart palpitations (palpitations during pregnancy). Many women initially attribute their symptoms to pregnancy, but this condition can seriously affect a woman’s health and often requires treatment.
- Pulmonary embolism: A pulmonary embolism occurs when there is a blood clot in an artery in the lungs . An embolism can significantly affect breathing and cause coughing, chest pain, and shortness of breath.
How is shortness of breath during pregnancy?
Feeling short of breath can be uncomfortable and limit a person’s physical activity. Fortunately, there are several steps pregnant women can take to make breathing more comfortable.
What is good for shortness of breath during pregnancy?
Things that can be good for shortness of breath during pregnancy include:
- Practicing good posture will allow the uterus to move as far away from the diaphragm as possible. Pregnancy support belts can make it easier to maintain good posture.
- Sleeping with pillows that support the upper back can allow gravity to pull the uterus down and make more room for the lungs. Leaning slightly to the left in this position can also help keep the uterus away from the aorta, which is the main artery that moves oxygenated blood throughout the body.
- You can practice breathing techniques commonly used in childbirth, such as Lamaze breathing. Practicing these techniques during pregnancy can help her use the same technique in childbirth.
- It is necessary to listen to the body and slow down when necessary. If breathing becomes too difficult, it is very important to take a break and rest. If you do not get enough rest, you may not be able to do the same level of physical activity as before in the later stages of pregnancy.
If there is another medical condition that causes shortness of breath during pregnancy, it is important to follow the doctor’s recommendations regarding treatment.
When to see a doctor for shortness of breath during pregnancy?
While many women experience some degree of shortness of breath during pregnancy, some symptoms require treatment. Pregnant women should seek emergency medical attention for the following symptoms:
- Blueness of the lips, fingers or toes
- heart palpitations or very high heart rate
- discomfort when breathing
- back pain when breathing
- Worsening severe shortness of breath
A doctor should also be consulted if shortness of breath is particularly bothersome or is experienced for the first time. The doctor may want to do imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, of the legs to rule out a blood clot as a possible cause.
As a result
Many women who are pregnant may experience shortness of breath at some point. One reason is that the uterus is enlarged and pushed into the abdomen. This compresses the lungs a bit, reducing the space they have for oxygen exchange.
An even greater cause of shortness of breath is progesterone, a hormone that increases during pregnancy. High progesterone levels cause pregnant women to breathe faster. The rise in progesterone begins early in pregnancy, and the shortness of breath it causes may come as a surprise.
While shortness of breath during pregnancy can be worrisome, most of the time it is harmless and is caused by the normal changes of pregnancy. However, it is worth seeing a doctor to clarify if there is any other reason for this.