Anticoagulation of pregnant women with mechanical heart valves: a systematic review of the literature

Arch Intern Med. 2000 Jan 24;160(2):191-6. doi: 10.1001/archinte.160.2.191.


Background: The management of women with prosthetic heart valves during pregnancy poses a particular challenge as there are no available controlled clinical trials to provide guidelines for effective antithrombotic therapy. Oral anticoagulants such as warfarin sodium cause fetal embryopathy; subcutaneous administration of heparin sodium has been reported to be ineffective in preventing thromboembolic complications.

Objective: To identify the risks of maternal and fetal complications in women with mechanical heart valves treated with different anticoagulation regimens during pregnancy.

Methods: We performed a systematic review of the literature to determine pooled estimates of maternal and fetal risks associated with the 3 commonly used approaches: (1) oral anticoagulants (OA) throughout pregnancy, (2) replacing OA with heparin in the first trimester (from 6-12 weeks' gestation), and (3) heparin use throughout pregnancy. Fetal outcomes included spontaneous abortions and fetopathic effects, and maternal outcomes were major bleeding, thromboembolic complications, and death.

Results: The use of OA throughout pregnancy is associated with warfarin embryopathy in 6.4% (95% confidence interval [CI], 4.6%-8.9%) of livebirths. The substitution of heparin at or prior to 6 weeks, and continued until 12 weeks, eliminated this risk. Overall risks for fetal wastage (spontaneous abortion, stillbirths, and neonatal deaths) were similar in women treated with OA throughout, compared with women treated with heparin in the first trimester. Maternal mortality was 2.9% (95% CI, 1.9%-4.2%). Maj or bleeding events occurred in 2.5% (95% CI, 1.7%-3.5%) of all pregnancies, most at the time of delivery. The regimen associated with the lowest risk of valve thrombosis (3.9%; 95% CI, 2.9-5.9%) was the use of OA throughout; using heparin only between 6 and 12 weeks' gestation was associated with an increased risk of valve thrombosis (9.2%; 95% CI, 5.9%-13.9%).

Conclusions: Thromboembolic prophylaxis of women with mechanical heart valves during pregnancy is best achieved with OA; however, this increases the risk of fetal embryopathy. Substituting OA with heparin between 6 and 12 weeks reduces the risk of fetopathic effects, but with an increased risk of thromboembolic complications. The use of low-dose heparin is definitely inadequate; the use of adjusted-dose heparin warrants aggressive monitoring and appropriate dose adjustment. Large prospective trials to determine the best regimen for these women are needed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Oral
  • Anticoagulants / administration & dosage*
  • Female
  • Heart Valve Prosthesis*
  • Heparin / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Injections, Subcutaneous
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Cardiovascular / drug therapy*
  • Pregnancy Outcome
  • Risk Factors
  • Thromboembolism / mortality
  • Thromboembolism / prevention & control*
  • Warfarin / administration & dosage


  • Anticoagulants
  • Warfarin
  • Heparin