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Ask the Expert - What is Preeclampsia and How Can I Avoid It?


What is Preeclampsia and How Can I Avoid It?

Pregnancy can be one of the most amazing and joyful time in a woman’s life, but it can also be very confusing. Your body is going through a lot of changes and sometimes it is hard to tell what changes are normal and what changes may cause concern. While most change will just be the typical things that happen when your body is working to support the pregnancy, high blood pressure, referred to as preeclampsia, is an issue that should not be ignored.

Learning more about the signs and symptoms of high blood pressure during pregnancy can help you identify a problem early before it becomes dangerous for you and your unborn baby. To raise awareness of preeclampsia as a life-threatening complication of pregnancy, the Preeclampsia Foundation has joined forces with maternal health organizations worldwide to host the first-ever World Preeclampsia Day on May 22.

The word “preeclampsia” comes from the Greek word for lightning, eclampsia, which was first used by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC. Eclampsia is the most extreme condition of high blood pressure in pregnancy that results in seizures. "Pre-eclampsia is the term used to describe high blood pressure in pregnancy which always happens before a seizure occurs. Hippocrates noted that high blood pressure and seizures in pregnancy could come suddenly to a pregnant woman without warning, much like a lightning strike.

Preeclampsia, one of the top three causes of pregnancy-related death worldwide, is a serious disorder that occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy and is characterized by high blood pressure and urine protein. This disorder can be particularly dangerous because many signs and symptoms are silent while others may simply resemble "normal" effects of pregnancy on your body. Many women suffering from preeclampsia do not feel sick and it may be frustrating to be asked to complete certain tests, end up on bed rest or even be admitted to the hospital.

When symptoms do develop in preeclampsia, they can include headaches, blurred vision, shortness of breath, or nausea or vomiting. In very rare cases, the most dangerous symptom of preeclampsia is when a woman develops seizures, or eclampsia. If preeclampsia is left untreated, severe blood disease can develop which can lead to uncontrolled bleeding, impaired liver function, kidney dysfunction, fluid in the lungs and shortness of breath, visual disturbance, and in rare cases death to mother or unborn child.

The cause of preeclampsia is unknown and has been called "the disease of theories." These theories include changes in biology of the placenta, inflammation, or abnormal hormones or proteins within the mother’s circulation. There are certain risks factors that can increase your chances of developing preeclampsia including obesity, extreme age during pregnancy (either very young or very old), diabetes, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders.

Your doctor or midwife will screen you for preeclampsia every time you visit the office by taking your blood pressure and checking the amount of protein in your urine sample. While there is no test to predict if a woman will develop preeclampsia during her pregnancy, there are some recommendations for prevention that expectant mothers should consider, like not smoking, taking a baby aspirin daily, taking calcium supplements and controlling high blood pressure if you have chronic hypertension. Unlike regular high blood pressure, changing your diet or limiting your salt intake does not prevent or treat preeclampsia. Be sure to talk with your doctor about these recommendations before taking any medications.

The only cure for preeclampsia is the delivery of the baby and placenta. Sometimes women are given antihypertensive medications at the time they deliver and even after delivery to control high blood pressure. Magnesium sulfate is also given during delivery to prevent seizures and protect your baby’s brain before delivery. If you develop preeclampsia during your pregnancy talk to your doctor after you fully recover about monitoring your blood pressure and your heart. Women who develop preeclampsia do have an increased risk for cardiovascular disease later in life.

Women should take the following actions to monitor their pregnancies for preeclampsia and reduce risk:

  • Talk to your doctor or midwife before or early in pregnancy about your risks for preeclampsia
  • Attend all your prenatal visits
  • Know your family history
  • Take your medications to control your blood pressure if you have chronic hypertension or diabetes
  • Eat healthy, exercise and maintain healthy weight before becoming pregnant

Dr. G. Ward Adcock, III, is a graduate of the East Carolina University School of Medicine and completed his residency with the Greenville Hospital System in Greenville, South Carolina. He is board certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology and is a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. He practices at Gaston Womens Healthcare in Gastonia and Mount Holly.

Categories: Physician's Blog