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Part One: General management considerations prior to, during, and after pregnancy in a woman with stroke

November 2017

1A. Pre-Pregnancy Counseling for Women with a History of Stroke

  1. Discussions of pregnancy and implications for stroke recurrence should be included as a routine part of post-stroke management for all female stroke survivors of reproductive age.
  2. Contraception should be addressed based upon the patients’ fertility and pregnancy plans as well as the stroke mechanism and type.
    1. In cases of ischemic and thrombo-embolic stroke, systemic estrogen-containing contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy that can increase the risk of thrombosis should be carefully considered and in most cases, should be avoided due to an increased risk of stroke.
    2. Management alternatives, including progesterone-only oral contraceptives, progesterone-only or non-hormonal intrauterine devices, or barrier contraception can be considered. Refer to CSBPR Prevention of Stroke Section 2 for more information.
  3. During pre-conception consultation with all female stroke survivors of reproductive age, stroke risk factor assessment and pharmacological management related to secondary stroke prevention in the context of pregnancy could be addressed. These include:
    1. Counseling on healthy diet, regular exercise, achievement of normal range body mass index, smoking cessation, alcohol use, and other lifestyle factors that may increase recurrent stroke risk during pregnancy. Note: routine considerations for all women considering pregnancies are addressed elsewhere: e.g. Health Canada Healthy Pregnancy Recommendations at https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/pregnancy/guide-healthy-pregnancy.html.
    2. A review of investigations to ensure stroke etiological workup has been undertaken and appropriate secondary prevention strategies are in place. Refer to CSBPR Prevention of Stroke Section 2 for more information.
    3. A review of current medications to evaluate for potential teratogenicity using available reference databases (e.g., Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology (DART) Database – https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/newtoxnet/dart.htm; Reprotox – reprotox.org); and the development of an individualized management plan for stroke risk reduction throughout conception, pregnancy, delivery and post-partum. Where possible, consider preconception use of medications with reasonable safety data throughout pregnancy (from pre-conception to breast feeding) to minimize the need for multiple medication switches throughout the pregnancy periods.
    4. Communication between health professionals with stroke expertise and those with obstetrical expertise is encouraged in the pre-pregnancy counselling stages;
    5. A discussion of the risk of recurrent stroke in future pregnancy.

Note: addressing fertility treatment in a woman who has previously experienced a stroke is beyond the scope of this consensus statement and should be dealt with on an individual basis in collaboration with Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility consultants.

1B. Antenatal and Intrapartum Risk Factor Screening for Women with a History of Stroke

  1. Initial obstetrical work-up for pregnant women with a history of stroke should include screening for and assessment of vascular risk factors, and counseling for healthy lifestyle behaviours. Refer to CSBPR Secondary Prevention of Stroke module for further information. (http://www.strokebestpractices.ca/prevention-of-stroke/)
  2. Individualized stroke prevention management plans based on each woman’s medical history, stage of pregnancy, type/etiology of stroke, stroke recurrence risk and personal goals and preferences may be made at this time. This collaborative plan should include considerations for labour and delivery. Refer to the subsequent sections below for management of specific risk factors and co-morbidities during pregnancy.

Refer to Part Two of this Stroke in Pregnancy series for guidance on managing a woman with an acute stroke during antenatal, intrapartum or postpartum periods.

1C. Post Partum Stroke Prevention Management for Women with a History of Stroke

  1. Stroke risk is highest peripartum and in the first 6 weeks post-partum. In this time frame, women may be educated about the signs of stroke (e.g., FAST) and to call 911 for sudden onset of new neurological symptoms, severe headaches or changes in mental status/consciousness.
  2. Women with high risk conditions or conditions requiring regular assessment (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, pre-eclampsia) may require closer postpartum monitoring. 6, 16
  3. If not previously involved, consider facilitating stroke prevention specialist assessment to review long-term stroke prevention management plan with consideration to breast-feeding:
    1. A prior stroke is not a contraindication to breast-feeding.
    2. Where available, allied health support (occupational therapy, breast feeding specialists) can be helpful to facilitate breast-feeding and support the mother in caring for the baby (e.g. in cases where women have residual cognitive or physical deficits from stroke, to address safety during feeding, transfers or bathing).
    3. Stroke prevention medications can be evaluated for compatibility with breast-feeding using existing reference databases. Preference can be given to medications that could be continued in the event that future pregnancies are desired. 22, 28 Refer to Part 2; Section A for more information.

The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in International Journal of Stroke by SAGE Publications Ltd. Copyright © 2017 World Stroke Organization. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1747493017743801


Stroke is a leading cause of adult neurological disability, death, and maternal morbidity and mortality in developed nations. Based on the pooled data in a recent meta-analysis (Swartz et al 2017) stroke affects 30/100,000 pregnancies. This is three times higher than rates for young adults overall (10/100,000 per year) and outcomes are dependent on rapid recognition and management. Stroke types are also more varied in pregnancy, with relatively more venous sinus thrombosis and intracranial hemorrhage. In addition, causes more commonly found in young adults (e.g. dissection, congenital cardiac complications), physiological adaptations to pregnancy (e.g., hypervolemia, increased clotting factors), and pregnancy specific disorders (e.g., HELLP, preeclampsia) combine to increase risk of stroke in pregnancy. Stroke is sufficiently common that most specialists providing either obstetrical or stroke care encounter women with a past stroke wanting to become pregnant, or women who develop a stroke during or immediately after a pregnancy. Thus, there is a need for a rational approach to management decisions, based on the best available literature, guided by expert consensus.

System Implications
  • Systems in place to enable women who become pregnant or are planning pregnancy to access appropriate antenatal care.
  • Collaborative relationships established between obstetrical, maternal-fetal medicine experts and stroke specialists to optimize access and management for women who experience stroke before, during or immediately after pregnancy.
  • Development of data collection systems to monitor women who experience stroke prior to, during or immediately after a pregnancy to improve knowledge of safety and efficacy of management approaches, drive quality improvement and systems change.
  • Promote randomized controlled trials or large population-based observational studies where feasible to reduce knowledge gaps and increase the ability to move from a consensus statement to an evidence-based clinical practice guideline
Performance Measures
  1. Proportion of women with a past history of stroke who experience a recurrent stroke during pregnancy or early postpartum.
  2. Proportion of women with a past history of stroke who experience a change in neurological abilities (physical, cognitive or functional) during pregnancy or early postpartum (positive or negative).
  3. Pregnancy-related maternal mortality in women with a past history of stroke.
  4. Proportions and rates of adverse fetal and neonatal outcomes: congenital anomalies, preterm delivery, perinatal and intrapartum morbidity and mortality.
Implementation Resources and Knowledge Transfer Tools

For Professionals

For Patients

Summary of the Evidence

Secondary Prevention of Stroke in Pregnancy

Vascular Risk Reduction
This section is focused on issues of stroke prevention associated with women who have either had a stroke in the past and are now planning to become pregnant, or who have sustained a stroke during pregnancy, but who are beyond the hyperacute phase. Pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of stroke due to changes in hemodynamics and coagulation. The evidence associated with management for commonly used secondary prevention strategies, including antithrombotic medications (both antiplatelets and anticoagulants), blood pressure management, cholesterol management and diabetes care, is summarized.

While aspirin therapy has been shown to reduce the risk of future vascular events among high-risk individuals, its use for stroke prevention during pregnancy hasn’t been specifically studied. Low-dose aspirin in pregnancy has been better studied for pregnancy-related conditions, such as recurrent pregnancy loss, clotting disorders or preeclampsia. The potential benefit of low-dose aspirin was examined in high-risk women with a history of one to two previous pregnancy losses (EAGeR trial, Schisterman et al. 2014). The results of this trial indicated that among women attempting to become pregnant, there was no difference between groups (81 mg aspirin daily vs. placebo) in the number of pregnancy losses (13% vs. 12%, RR=1.06, 95% CI 0.77-1.46, p=0.78). In a meta-analysis including the results from 3 trials, low-dose aspirin was not associated with a reduction in the risk of preeclampsia, severe preeclampsia or pre-term birth (Roberge et al. 2016). More recently, the results from the ASPRE Trial (Rolnik et al. 2017) suggested that low-dose aspirin (150 mg per day), initiated from 11 to 14 weeks of gestation until 36 weeks of gestation, was associated with a reduced risk of delivery with preeclampsia before 37 weeks of gestation, compared with placebo (OR=0.38, 95% CI 0.20-0.74, p=0.04), without an increased risk of adverse events.

The safety of low-dose aspirin use in pregnancy is well-established. Nørgard et al. (2005) reported on the outcomes of 3,415 children with 4 congenital abnormalities, which were included in a national Congenital Abnormality Registry. Compared with a reference group that was composed of 19,428 children with other congenital abnormalities, exposure to aspirin was found not to significantly increase the odds of any of the 4 congenital abnormalities (including neural-tube defects, exomphalos/gastroschisis, cleft lip ± palate and posterior cleft palate). A meta-analysis including the results from 22 controlled studies yielded similar results (Kozer et al. 2002). Pooling the results from 8 and 6 studies, the overall odds of congenital malformations or cardiac malformations were not significantly higher in the aspirin-exposed group (OR=1.33, 95% CI 0.94-1.89, p=0.11 and OR=1.01, 95% CI 0.91-1.12, p=0.80, respectively). However, the incidence of gastroschisis was significantly higher in the aspirin-exposed group (OR=2.37, 95% CI 1.44-3.88, p=0.0006). There is a theoretical risk of Reye’s syndrome associated with aspirin use during pregnancy, but no confirmed reports.

Certain conditions, including the presence of artificial heart valves, or conditions related to hypercoagulability require the continued need for thromboprophylaxis, or their initiation during pregnancy. The safest known anticoagulants associated with pregnancy are low molecular weight heparin (LHWH) and unfractionated heparin (UFH), neither of which crosses the placenta. Vitamin K antagonists (VKA) are classified by the FDA as a category X substance, therefore their risks and benefits must be closely weighed, as their use has been associated with an increased risk of miscarriage, teratogenic effects in the first trimester, and risk of bleeding to both fetus and mother. In a systematic review including 28 studies examining the use of oral anticoagulants among pregnant women with mechanical heart valves, Chan et al. (2000), reported that while their use was more effective for thromboembolic prophylaxis, the frequency of congenital abnormalities was 6.4%. In a more recent review, Xu et al. (2016) included the results of 51 studies (2,113 pregnancies) of women who received anticoagulation therapy related to management of mechanical heart valves. The frequency of congenital fetal anomalies associated with VKA use was 2.13% and 0.68% for lose-dose VKA. There were no fetal abnormalities in the LMWH or UFH regimen groups. Maternal thromboembolic events (MTEs) and maternal deaths were lowest in the low-dose VKA subgroup (1.14% and 0.31%, respectively). The occurrences of MTEs and major antenatal hemorrhage events were highest in the UFH group (29.9% and 5.3%, respectively). Compared with low-dose VKA regimen, the incidences of spontaneous abortion and warfarin embryopathy were significantly higher compared with the high-dose VKA group.

Anticoagulants have also been examined for the prevention of pregnancy complications associated with thrombophilias, but were not found to be effective. Results from the Thrombophilia in Pregnancy Prophylaxis Study (TIPPS) indicated that among pregnant women with thrombophilia at high risk of pregnancy complications, antepartum prophylactic dalteparin did not reduce the risk of venous thromboembolism and placenta-mediated pregnancy complications (Rodger et al. 2014). In this trial, 292 pregnant women were randomized to receive 5,000 IU dalteparin once daily from randomization to 20 weeks’ gestation and then the same dose twice daily until 37 weeks of gestation vs. no dalteparin. The primary outcome, a composite including any of proximal deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, or sudden maternal death, severe or early onset preeclampsia, oliguria, pulmonary edema, coagulopathy, birth of small-for-gestational-age SGA infant, or pregnancy loss, was not significantly reduced in the dalteparin group (risk difference of -1.8%, 95% CI -10.6%-7.1%, p=0.70). There was also no significant difference among three treatment groups (LMWH, ASA or both combined) in the percentage of live births in the Low Molecular Weight Heparin and/or Aspirin in Prevention of Habitual Abortion (HABENOX) Trial (Visser et al. 2011).

Women with hypertensive-disorders of pregnancy are at greater risk for stroke, especially those with traditional risk factors (Leffert et al. 2015), therefore, treatment of moderate to severe hypertension is critical to achieving a favourable outcome. A limited number of agents, including methyldopa, labetalol, and nifedipine, are known to be safe and effective during pregnancy. The potential benefit of a tight versus less tight regimen among women with moderate diastolic hypertension (90-105 mm Hg) was evaluated in the Control of Hypertension In Pregnancy Study (CHIPS) study (Magee et al. 2015). Although the frequency of severe hypertension was significantly higher among women in the less-tight control group, there was no significant difference between groups in the frequency of any of individual components of the primary outcome (miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, elective termination, perinatal death, still birth or high-level neonatal care). The frequency of serious maternal complications was not significantly lower among women in the tight-control group (2.0% vs. 3.7%, adj OR=1.74, 95% CI 0.79-3.84). There was a single stroke/TIA in the tight-control group vs. none in the less-tight control group. A Cochrane review (Abalos et al. 2013) including 48 RCTs (4,723 women) evaluated antihypertensive drug treatment for mild to moderate hypertension during pregnancy, defined as SBP 140-169 mmHg and DBP 90-109 mmHg. Treatment contrasts compared ≥1 antihypertensive drug vs. either placebo or no antihypertensive drug (n=29), and one antihypertensive drug vs. another (n=22), with a duration of treatment of at least 7 days. Compared with women who received no treatment, the risk of severe hypertension was significantly reduced in the active treatment group. While the risk of pre-eclampsia/proteinuria was not significantly reduced in the active treatment group (RR= 0.93, 95% CI 0.80-1.08, p=0.34), in the sub group examination of beta blockers, the risk of developing proteinuria/pre-eclampsia was significantly reduced (RR=0.73, 95% CI 0.57-0.94). The risk of fetal or neonatal death, pre-term birth or small-for-gestational age were not significantly reduced for women taking antihypertensive treatment. In terms of treatment for the prevention of hypertension during pregnancy, a Cochrane review including 13 RCTs in women without hypertension examined the effectiveness of calcium supplementation to reduce the risk of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy (Hofmeyr et al. 2014). Women were randomized to receive either high-dose (≥1 g/day) or low-dose (<1 g/da) calcium supplement or placebo, until delivery. High-dose calcium supplementation was associated with significantly reduced risks of high blood pressure (RR= 0.65, 95% CI 0.53-0.81, p<0.0001) and pre-eclampsia (RR= 0.45, 95% CI 0.31-0.65, p<0.0001). Low-dose supplementation was also associated with a significantly reduced risk of high blood pressure (RR= 0.53, 95% CI 0.38-0.74, p<0.0001).

Statin Use
While the benefits of statin use for secondary prevention are well-established, statin treatment is usually not warranted during pregnancy, as lipid dysregulation is a physiologic adaptation of pregnancy. The development of certain cells (e.g myelin) and the accumulation of fat mass in the fetus, are dependent upon lipid metabolism. Statin medications have been classified in pregnancy as Category X, and are contraindicated due to their potential teratogenicity. Several reports comparing the pregnancy outcomes of women accidentally exposed to statins during pregnancy with those of women not exposed, have been published. The results are ambiguous, with some studies suggesting a significant increased risk of congenital abnormalities associated with statin use, particularly during the first trimester. In the largest cohort study (Bateman et al. 2015), statin use was associated with a significantly increased risk in the incidence of birth defects in unadjusted analysis (6.34% vs. 3.55%, RR=1.79, 95% CI 1.43-2.23), but was no longer evident in an analysis using propensity scores, adjusting for age, diabetes and other confounding factors (RR=1.07, 95% CI 0.85-1.37). Zarek & Koren (2014) included the results from 6 controlled studies in a meta-analysis, and reported that the use of statins during pregnancy was not associated with an increased risk of birth defects (RR=1.15, 95% CI 0.75-1.76, p=0.52), although there was a significant increase in risk of miscarriage (RR=1.35, 95% CI 1.04-1.75). In a case-control study, Winterfeld et al. (2013) reported the frequency of major birth defects was non-significantly higher in the statin-exposed group (4.1% vs. 2.7%, OR=1.5, 95% CI 0.5-4.5, p=0.43), while the frequency of pre-term delivery, miscarriage or fetal death was significantly higher in the statin-exposed group. Most recently, Karalis et al. (2016) reviewed the results of 16 case series, cohort studies, meta-analyses and an RCT, and concluded there was no clear evidence of a relationship linking congenital anomalies with statin use in pregnancy, suggesting they were probably not teratogenic, while at the same time, cautioning that their use should be avoided.

Women with gestational diabetes are at increased risk of antenatal stroke (Scott et all 2012, James et al. 2005), and may be at risk for future stroke up to 7 years after delivery (Goueslard et al. 2016). In studies that have examined the relationship between gestational diabetes and future risk of cardiovascular disease, including stroke, the strength of the relationship is attenuated after adjusting for age and subsequent diabetes or menopausal status (Archambault et al. 2014, Savitz et al. 2014, Shah et al. 2008). A low glycemic index diet has been shown to significantly reduce both fasting and 2-hour post-prandial blood glucose, compared with a control group consuming intermediate-high glycemic index foods (Ma et al. 2014). Target 1-hour postprandial blood glucose of <7.8 mmol/L has been associated with good outcomes and has been suggested as a reasonable target for women with gestational diabetes (Thompson et al. 2013).

Management considerations for specific Stroke etiologies in Pregnancy
There is limited evidence concerning the management of strokes that occur during pregnancy, with specific etiologies including cardioembolic source, cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), cervical artery dissection, antiphospholipid antibody syndrome (AAS) and cryptogenic stroke. The evidence base is largely composed of case reports and case series. Regardless of the etiology, treatment with either oral anticoagulants or antiplatelets (aspirin) appears to be common practice.

Outside of pregnancy, cervical artery dissections are usually treated with either a vitamin K antagonist or antiplatelet (aspirin) for 3-6 months. Case reports of women treated for carotid and vertebral dissections occurring in both the antenatal and early post-partum period, indicate the same management strategies may be used (Shanmugalingam et al. 2016, Baffour et al. 2012, Waidelich et al. 2008) without adverse effects on the mother or baby. The use of anticoagulants or antiplatelet drugs among a series of 62 women who presented with CVST during pregnancy was reported by Ciron et al. (2013). The preventative strategies used during subsequent pregnancies included no treatment (n=3), anticoagulation therapy during entire pregnancy, with and without aspirin; anticoagulation therapy during 3rd trimester of pregnancy, with and without aspirin; and anticoagulation therapy during entire pregnancy and puerperium. Demir et al. (2013) reporting on 19 cases of pregnancy-associated CVST, noted that all women were treated with LWMH (enoxaparin) at a dose of 95 IU/kg twice daily for the duration of their pregnancy. Both aspirin and warfarin were used for secondary prevention in a study including 68 women who sustained CVST during pregnancy (Lamy et al. 2000).