A complication that can occur during pregnancy, preeclampsia involves a sudden rise in blood pressure accompanied by swelling, especially in the hands, feet, and face. While it is relatively rare, the condition does affect as many as 1 in 20 pregnancies.
It is important for expecting mothers and their partners to know what to look for and what to expect should they develop the condition. If left untreated, the preeclampsia can lead to life-threatening complications; however, this is rare in mothers who keep their scheduled prenatal visits.
What Is Preeclampsia?
Understanding what is preeclampsia can go a long way toward preventing the complication and getting adequate treatment should you or a loved one develop the condition. Formerly known as toxemia, preeclampsia is an unexpected rise in blood pressure, particularly in women who have not presented with high blood pressure previously.
Women with the condition typically also have a high concentration of protein in their urine and develop excessive swelling in the hands, feet, and legs. The condition typically develops in late pregnancy, but it can develop earlier.
While anywhere between 6 and 8 percent of all pregnant women experience high blood pressure during pregnancy, they do not all have preeclampsia. Rather it is the combination of high blood pressure and the presence of the protein in the urine that is the most telling diagnosis.
At any rate, if the condition is left untreated, it can develop into a more complex condition known as eclampsia. This condition puts the mother and baby at a more significant risk and can in some rare cases result in death. Women who present with preeclampsia and seizures are also considered to have eclampsia.
Signs and Symptoms of Preeclampsia
It can be difficult for pregnant women to catch the warning signs of preeclampsia on their own because many women experience few to no symptoms that are measurable to the individual. That is why it is so important for expecting mothers to keep regular appointments with their prenatal care provider. The doctor will check for the characteristic warning signs of preeclampsia, including high blood pressure, protein in the urine, and swelling.
Some women do experience additional symptoms of the condition; however, these signs are often easy to confuse with “normal” pregnancy symptoms. Other signs of preeclampsia include:
- Swelling – particularly in the face, feet, and hands.
- Headache – dull, severe, or throbbing in nature; much like migraine headaches.
- Nausea or vomiting – particularly significant if sudden and after mid-pregnancy.
- Abdominal and/or shoulder pain – typically under the ribs on the right side.
- Low back pain – different from muscle or back pain caused by normal pregnancy strain.
- Sudden weight gain – more than 2 pounds in a week period.
- Vision changes – one of the most serious symptoms of preeclampsia, including sensitivity to light, auras or flashing, or blurred vision or spots.
- Hyperreflexia – generally cause by an overreaction of the involuntary nervous system.
- Shortness of breath – an indicator of elevated blood pressure or in rare cases, fluid collecting in the lungs.
- Anxiety – particularly when it is new to the patient.
Causes of Preeclampsia
While the exact cause of preeclampsia is considered largely unknown, there are several factors believed to play a role in the onset of the condition. One of the primary factors suggested by most experts is the function of the blood vessels, which serves to nourish the fetus.
Typically in early pregnancy, blood vessels form to ensure sufficient blood flow to the placenta. However, in women with preeclampsia, it appears as if these vessels never form or function properly. They tend to appear narrower and respond different to hormonal stimulation, limiting the amount of blood flow.
This abnormal development may be the result of:
- Insufficient blood flow.
- Damage to the vessels.
- Immune system issues.
- Certain genetic factors.
Risk Factors for Preeclampsia
Certain factors may predispose an expectant mother to be more at risk for developing preeclampsia. These factors include:
- A history of preeclampsia personally or in the family.
- Chronic hypertension.
- A first-time pregnancy.
- New paternity.
- Multiple pregnancy.
- Time between pregnancies.
- History of certain health conditions, including high blood pressure, migraines, diabetes, kidney disease, and others.
- In vitro fertilization.
In most cases, the only cure for preeclampsia is delivering the baby. If you present with preeclampsia earlier in your pregnancy, your doctor will likely monitor your condition in an effort to manage it and keep you and your baby healthy. Beyond 37 weeks, though, your doctor will likely induce labor as your baby should be developed to the point of being minimally premature.
If your condition is mild, your doctor may suggestion certain measure to help manage your condition. These recommendations include:
- Bed rest.
- Reduced salt intake.
- Increased water intake.
- More regular doctor visits.
- Non-stress tests.
In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medication to lower your blood pressure. If your condition is more serious, however, your doctor may want to admit you to be able to more thoroughly monitor your condition. In this case, you’ll likely be given intravenous medication to regulate your blood pressure as well as steroid injections to help your baby’s lungs develop more quickly.
If your condition is severe enough to put you or your child in danger, early delivery might be the only option. Signs of severe preeclampsia include:
- Fetal distress, including changes in the fetal heart rate.
- Abdominal pain.
- Reduced kidney function.
- Fluid buildup in the lungs.
While there is no specific way to prevent preeclampsia, there a few things you can do to “control the controllable.” Some factors associated with preeclampsia can be controlled, and others can’t. So doing your best, understanding what is preeclampsia, and following your doctor’s recommendations about general health guidelines is the most important thing you can do. That said, to try to limit the effects of the factors you do have some level of control over, try to be mindful of the following:
- Control your salt intake. Use very little to no added salt.
- Drink the recommended amount of water each day – at least 6 to 8 glasses.
- Avoid fried foods and limit your intake of “junk food.”
- Get a sufficient amount of rest – at least 6 to 8 hours each night.
- Exercise regularly. Even if you haven’t been exercising, start with something like walking or water aerobics.
- Elevate your feet several times throughout the day.
- Limit your intake of caffeine.
- Take any medications or supplements as prescribed by your doctor.
The Bottom Line
While preeclampsia can be a significant pregnancy complication, understanding what is preeclampsia, monitoring your own health, and keeping regular appointments with your prenatal care provider should help you avoid complications. Likewise, even though there is no specific way to predict or prevent preeclampsia, good general health practices should help you control those factors you can’t control. And should you present with the condition, trust that your doctor will do what he or she needs to to take the best care of you and your child.
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