What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a common pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and proteinuria (protein in urine). This condition often occurs during pregnancy (after the 20th week) but can also occur after giving birth.
According to data, 5% of all women experience preeclampsia at some point in their pregnancy. (1)
Most people confuse preeclampsia with eclampsia, which are similar conditions that present with different signs and symptoms. Simply put, eclampsia is the severe complication of preeclampsia, where high blood pressure leads to seizures that endanger the mother and the baby’s health.

This article will briefly discuss the common causes and symptoms of preeclampsia and the available treatment options.

What causes preeclampsia?

Unfortunately, researchers have yet to identify the exact cause(s) that lead(s) to preeclampsia. However, they have pinpointed a few risk factors. (2)
These risk factors include:

  • Genetics – while no specific gene has been identified, scientists believe that having a family history of preeclampsia increases your risk of developing this condition.
  • Women above the age of 35 are more likely to develop preeclampsia / the same applies to pregnant women during their early teenage years.
  • Vascular pathologies (e.g., atherosclerosis)
  • Autoimmune disorders (e.g., systemic lupus erythematosus)
  • Multiple gestations
  • Obesity
  • History of chronic blood hypertension, diabetes, or kidney pathologies

The best approach to minimize preeclampsia complications is by getting consistent prenatal care since it allows your doctor to pose the early diagnosis and provide the appropriate treatment.

Symptoms of preeclampsia

While preeclampsia can present with an array of signs and symptoms, some patients are completely symptoms-free. The commonly encountered symptoms consist of:

  • Unintentional and abrupt weight gain
  • Vision disorders (changes in vision, light sensitivity, or blurred vision)
  • Severe  and persistent headaches
  • Edema (i.e., swelling) of the hands and face
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Abdominal pain (upper part)

When it comes to clinical signs, your doctor will measure your blood pressure, which is often above 140/90 mm Hg. Additionally, biological tests may identify protein in the urine, which indicates a suboptimal renal function. Another test that supports the diagnosis of preeclampsia is the low platelets (below 150,000).
Finally, your primary care physician or OB/GYN may suggest a nonstress test for your fetus to monitor fluid changes and heart rate. Preeclampsia diagnosis relies on collecting sufficient data from your history, physical exam, and additional tests (e.g., blood pressure, proteinuria).

What is the treatment for preeclampsia?

The treatment of preeclampsia varies depending on the gestational age of the baby and other factors. Here are the commonly recommended treatments:

  • Delivering the baby: by far, the baby’s delivery is the most effective treatment method if you are pregnant at week 37 or later. At this point, the physician may even induce labor using pharmacological drugs. Once the baby gets delivered, your blood pressure goes back to normal.
  • If the baby’s gestational age is below 37 weeks, the doctor will consider several factors before deciding whether and when to induce labor. Such factors include the possible health complications for you and the baby, the severity of the disease, and immediate labor consequences.

Other treatment options (during pregnancy)

If delivery is not an option, the doctor may suggest other therapeutic approaches, including anti-hypertensive medications, anti-seizure drugs, and analgesics (i.e., painkillers).
For instance, if you experience a hypertensive emergency, where your blood pressure is way above normal levels, the doctor may admit you to the hospital to receive intravenous (IV) antihypertensive medications and steroid injections. This treatment aims to lower your blood pressure and aid in the development of the baby’s lungs.

Other treatment options (after delivery)

While most preeclampsia cases resolve after delivering the baby, some women experience high blood pressure days after childbirth. (4)
In this scenario, your doctor will recommend a close follow-up with regular blood pressure measurements to ensure the absence of postpartum complications.

How to prevention preeclampsia

Since doctors have not yet identified preeclampsia causes, this condition’s full prevention is unfortunately not possible. However, there are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, including:

  • Getting sufficiently hydrated (drinking between 6–8 glasses of water daily)
  • Excluding process foods from your diet
  • Reducing the amount of added salt
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Avoiding alcohol and caffeine
  • Elevating your legs above heart-level a few times per day
  • Resting every day

The combination of these factors can tremendously reduce your risk of hypertensive emergencies and other blood pressure-related complications.
Before making any drastic lifestyle modifications, make sure to consult your doctor, especially when it comes to taking drugs and dietary supplements.

Outcome of preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in the United States (US) and is associated with considerable perinatal morbidity and mortality. (5)
Complications of preeclampsia may include:

  • Eclampsia – left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to seizures. It affects 1 in every 200 women with preeclampsia. (6)
  • The HELLP syndrome is a life-threatening complication that happens in 1 or 2 of 10 women with severe preeclampsia. This condition is characterized by Hemolysis (breaking down of red blood cells), Elevated Liver enzymes, and Low Platelet count. (6,7)
  • Small-vessel thrombosis – refers to the formation of tiny blood clots that obstruct the veins and arteries, leading to cellular death and organ failure.
  • Severe vascular damage – in this condition, the lining walls of the blood vessels get severely damaged all over the body.
  • Organs damages – the high blood pressure penetrating the organs may damage the kidneys, liver, lungs, heart, or eyes.
  • Preeclampsia can also lead to neurological complications such as strokes and bleeding inside the brain.
  • Placental abruption – preeclampsia increases the risk of detachment of the placenta from the uterus wall, which leads to severe intrauterine bleeding.
  • Fetal growth restriction – preeclampsia can affect the amount of blood that goes to the placenta. This prevents the baby from getting enough oxygen and nutrients, which impairs its growth, and the baby is small for its gestational age.
  • Preterm birth – women with preeclampsia may need to deliver their babies early. Premature babies, especially those born very early, often suffer long-lasting medical issues.

Takeaway message

Preeclampsia is a common condition that affects pregnant women. This disease should not be taken lightly since it can lead to severe complications that endanger the mother and her baby.

References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23746796/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4837230/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6046127/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19935034/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26479171/
  6. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/women-s-health-issues/complications-of-pregnancy/preeclampsia-and-eclampsia
  7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/000293789390043I
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About the Author

Hermione M.

My name is Hermione. I am the founder of WomenH and I write about women's health, wellness, mental health, and personal growth. I created this platform to inspire women to take care of themselves mentally, physically, and emotionally to become their best selves. Thank you for stopping by.

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