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
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.