What Is Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-related disorder that affects both mother and unborn baby, occurring in 5-8% of all births in the US. Preeclampsia is also known as toxemia, preeclampsia/toxemia, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and EPH gestosis.

Typically, preeclampsia occurs after twenty weeks gestation, although cases of preeclampsia have been reported earlier. Preeclampsia is a serious disorder that can lead to seizure, stroke, multiple organ failure and even death of the mother and/or baby.

The progression of preeclampsia from mild to very severe can be slow or incredibly quick, which is why detection and treatment is so important.

What Does Preeclampsia Do?

Preeclampsia can cause elevated blood pressure which increases the risks for maternal brain injury. Preeclampsia can impair liver and kidney function, cause blood coagulation (clotting) problems, pulmonary edema, seizures, and if left untreated, lead to maternal and/or fetal death.

Signs of Preeclampsia:

Pregnant women with preeclampsia may not realize they’re sick, so proper prenatal care and awareness of the symptoms are important.

These symptoms may or may not indicate the presence of preeclampsia:

  • Hypertension - high blood pressure - is generally defined as blood pressure of 140/90 or higher, measured twice, six hours apart. Hypertension is the most important indicator that preeclampsia is developing. Pregnant women should know their normal blood pressure prior to pregnancy and be aware of the reading each time.
  • Proteinuria (Protein in your urine) - preeclampsia temporarily damages the kidneys, spilling protein (normally kept in the blood) into the urine. Proteinuria is measured via a simple urine dipstick test.
  • Edema (Swelling) - while swelling is to be expected during pregnancy, extraneous swelling, especially in the face, around the eyes or in the hands can be cause for concern.
  • Sudden weight gain - Weight gain of more than two pounds in a week can indicate preeclampsia as damaged blood vessels allow for extra water to leak into the bodies tissues.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting - particularly if it's sudden onset and after mid-pregnancy.
  • Abdominal and/or shoulder pain - Upper right quadrant pain, located under the ribs on the right side may be a sign that HELLP (a syndrome related to preeclampsia, explained below) or another liver condition is arising.
  • Lower back pain - while some degree of lower back pain is typical in pregnancy, it may occasionally indicate problems with the liver, especially coupled with other preeclampsia symptoms.
  • Headaches - dull, severe, throbbing, migraine-like headaches that won't dissipate with over-the-counter remedies are cause for concern.
  • Change in Vision - vision changes are associated with central nervous system irritation or cerebral edema and can include vision loss, auras, light sensitivity, blurred vision, spots, or flashing lights.
  • Hyperreflexia - overly strong reflexes generally measured by a doctor.
  • Racing pulse, mental confusion, increased anxiety, shortness of breath, feelings of impending doom could indicate increasing blood pressure or pulmonary edema.

 

Risk Factors for Preeclampsia:

The cause of preeclampsia remains unknown; however it is generally accepted that the placenta plays a key role in preeclampsia. There are several known risk factors that make certain women more susceptible toward developing preeclampsia. These include:

Preeclampsia Treatment:

The only way to treat preeclampsia is to deliver the baby and the placenta. If preeclampsia develops early in pregnancy, the doctor may recommend medications to lower blood pressure, prevent seizures and improve the functioning liver and platelets, which may help carry the baby closer to term. 

Related Disorders:

Eclampsia: a highly serious complication of preeclampsia characterized by multiple seizures during pregnancy or during the postpartum period. Eclampsia is a very treatable condition if caught and treated quickly.

Left untreated, eclamptic seizures can lead to brain damage, coma, maternal and/or infant death.

It was once thought that preeclampsia was the disorder that preceded eclampsia, but it is now known that eclamptic seizures are only one of several possible complications of preeclampsia. Eclamptic seizures may arise without prior signs of preeclampsia.

HELLP Syndrome - one of the most severe and life-threatening forms of preeclampsia. HELLP Syndrome can lead to substantial maternal liver injury, breakdown of maternal red blood cells and decreased platelet counts.


  • Hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells)

  • Elevated Liver enzymes

  • Low Platelet count

Diagnosis and treatment of HELLP Syndrome is imperative as the mortality rate associated with the syndrome is as high as 25%. Diagnosis is compounded by the issue that HELLP Syndrome mimics that of the flu and several other medical issues.

Always listen to your body.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together

Pregnancy

High Risk Pregnancy

Pregnancy At Advanced Maternal Age

Teen Pregnancy

Multiples Pregnancy

Pregnancy Week By Week

Gestational Diabetes

Additional Preeclampsia Resources:

Preeclampsia Foundation – a wealth of information about preeclampsia and related disorders.

The Promise Walk for Preeclampsia - fundraising site to raise awareness and advocate for research into preeclampsia.

The American Pregnancy Association provides information on all things pregnancy-related, including complications like preeclampsia.

WomensHealth.gov - This is a site run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  There is a wealth of information to assist pregnant women.