Sudden weight gain and swelling, along with high blood pressure and protein in the urine, could be signs of preeclampsia. Learn what to watch for.
Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to another organ system, most often the liver and kidneys. Preeclampsia usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women whose blood pressure had been normal.
Left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to serious — even fatal — complications for both you and your baby. If you have preeclampsia, the most effective treatment is delivery of your baby. Even after delivering the baby, it can still take a while for you to get better.
If you're diagnosed with preeclampsia too early in your pregnancy to deliver your baby, you and your doctor face a challenging task. Your baby needs more time to mature, but you need to avoid putting yourself or your baby at risk of serious complications.
Rarely, preeclampsia develops after delivery of a baby, a condition known as postpartum preeclampsia.
Preeclampsia sometimes develops without any symptoms. High blood pressure may develop slowly, or it may have a sudden onset. Monitoring your blood pressure is an important part of prenatal care because the first sign of preeclampsia is commonly a rise in blood pressure. Blood pressure that exceeds 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or greater — documented on two occasions, at least four hours apart — is abnormal.
Other signs and symptoms of preeclampsia may include:
Sudden weight gain and swelling (edema) — particularly in your face and hands — may occur with preeclampsia. But these also occur in many normal pregnancies, so they're not considered reliable signs of preeclampsia.
Make sure you attend your prenatal visits so that your care provider can monitor your blood pressure. Contact your doctor immediately or go to an emergency room if you have severe headaches, blurred vision or other visual disturbance, severe pain in your abdomen, or severe shortness of breath.
Because headaches, nausea, and aches and pains are common pregnancy complaints, it's difficult to know when new symptoms are simply part of being pregnant and when they may indicate a serious problem — especially if it's your first pregnancy. If you're concerned about your symptoms, contact your doctor.
The exact cause of preeclampsia involves several factors. Experts believe it begins in the placenta — the organ that nourishes the fetus throughout pregnancy. Early in pregnancy, new blood vessels develop and evolve to efficiently send blood to the placenta.
In women with preeclampsia, these blood vessels don't seem to develop or function properly. They're narrower than normal blood vessels and react differently to hormonal signaling, which limits the amount of blood that can flow through them.
Causes of this abnormal development may include:
Preeclampsia is classified as one of four high blood pressure disorders that can occur during pregnancy. The other three are:
Preeclampsia develops only as a complication of pregnancy. Risk factors include:
The more severe your preeclampsia and the earlier it occurs in your pregnancy, the greater the risks for you and your baby. Preeclampsia may require induced labor and delivery.
Delivery by cesarean delivery (C-section) may be necessary if there are clinical or obstetric conditions that require a speedy delivery. Otherwise, your doctor may recommend a scheduled vaginal delivery. Your obstetric provider will talk with you about what type of delivery is right for your condition.
Complications of preeclampsia may include:
HELLP syndrome. HELLP — which stands for hemolysis (the destruction of red blood cells), elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count — syndrome is a more severe form of preeclampsia, and can rapidly become life-threatening for both you and your baby.
Symptoms of HELLP syndrome include nausea and vomiting, headache, and upper right abdominal pain. HELLP syndrome is particularly dangerous because it represents damage to several organ systems. On occasion, it may develop suddenly, even before high blood pressure is detected or it may develop without any symptoms at all.
Eclampsia. When preeclampsia isn't controlled, eclampsia — which is essentially preeclampsia plus seizures — can develop. It is very difficult to predict which patients will have preeclampsia that is severe enough to result in eclampsia.
Often, there are no symptoms or warning signs to predict eclampsia. Because eclampsia can have serious consequences for both mom and baby, delivery becomes necessary, regardless of how far along the pregnancy is.
Researchers continue to study ways to prevent preeclampsia, but so far, no clear strategies have emerged. Eating less salt, changing your activities, restricting calories, or consuming garlic or fish oil doesn't reduce your risk. Increasing your intake of vitamins C and E hasn't been shown to have a benefit.
Some studies have reported an association between vitamin D deficiency and an increased risk of preeclampsia. But while some studies have shown an association between taking vitamin D supplements and a lower risk of preeclampsia, others have failed to make the connection.
In certain cases, however, you may be able to reduce your risk of preeclampsia with:
It's important that you don't take any medications, vitamins or supplements without first talking to your doctor.
Before you become pregnant, especially if you've had preeclampsia before, it's a good idea to be as healthy as you can be. Lose weight if you need to, and make sure other conditions, such as diabetes, are well-managed.
Once you're pregnant, take care of yourself — and your baby — through early and regular prenatal care. If preeclampsia is detected early, you and your doctor can work together to prevent complications and make the best choices for you and your baby.
To diagnose preeclampsia, you have to have high blood pressure and one or more of the following complications after the 20th week of pregnancy:
Previously, preeclampsia was only diagnosed if high blood pressure and protein in the urine were present. However, experts now know that it's possible to have preeclampsia, yet never have protein in the urine.
A blood pressure reading in excess of 140/90 mm Hg is abnormal in pregnancy. However, a single high blood pressure reading doesn't mean you have preeclampsia. If you have one reading in the abnormal range — or a reading that's substantially higher than your usual blood pressure — your doctor will closely observe your numbers.
Having a second abnormal blood pressure reading four hours after the first may confirm your doctor's suspicion of preeclampsia. Your doctor may have you come in for additional blood pressure readings and blood and urine tests.
If your doctor suspects preeclampsia, you may need certain tests, including:
The most effective treatment for preeclampsia is delivery. You're at increased risk of seizures, placental abruption, stroke and possibly severe bleeding until your blood pressure decreases. Of course, if it's too early in your pregnancy, delivery may not be the best thing for your baby.
If you're diagnosed with preeclampsia, your doctor will let you know how often you'll need to come in for prenatal visits — likely more frequently than what's typically recommended for pregnancy. You'll also need more frequent blood tests, ultrasounds and nonstress tests than would be expected in an uncomplicated pregnancy.
Possible treatment for preeclampsia may include:
Medications to lower blood pressure. These medications, called antihypertensives, are used to lower your blood pressure if it's dangerously high. Blood pressure in the 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) range generally isn't treated.
Although there are many different types of antihypertensive medications, a number of them aren't safe to use during pregnancy. Discuss with your doctor whether you need to use an antihypertensive medicine in your situation to control your blood pressure.
Bed rest used to be routinely recommended for women with preeclampsia. But research hasn't shown a benefit from this practice, and it can increase your risk of blood clots, as well as impact your economic and social lives. For most women, bed rest is no longer recommended.
Severe preeclampsia may require that you be hospitalized. In the hospital, your doctor may perform regular nonstress tests or biophysical profiles to monitor your baby's well-being and measure the volume of amniotic fluid. A lack of amniotic fluid is a sign of poor blood supply to the baby.
If you're diagnosed with preeclampsia near the end of your pregnancy, your doctor may recommend inducing labor right away. The readiness of your cervix — whether it's beginning to open (dilate), thin (efface) and soften (ripen) — also may be a factor in determining whether or when labor will be induced.
In severe cases, it may not be possible to consider your baby's gestational age or the readiness of your cervix. If it's not possible to wait, your doctor may induce labor or schedule a C-section right away. During delivery, you may be given magnesium sulfate intravenously to prevent seizures.
If you need pain-relieving medication after your delivery, ask your doctor what you should take. NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve), can increase your blood pressure.
After delivery, it can take some time before high blood pressure and other preeclampsia symptoms resolve.
Discovering that you have a potentially serious pregnancy complication can be frightening. If you're diagnosed with preeclampsia late in your pregnancy, you may be surprised and scared to know that you'll be induced right away. If you're diagnosed earlier in your pregnancy, you may have many weeks to worry about your baby's health.
It may help to learn about your condition. In addition to talking to your doctor, do some research. Make sure you understand when to call your doctor, how you should monitor your baby and your condition, and then find something else to occupy your time so that you don't spend too much time worrying.
Preeclampsia will probably be diagnosed during a routine prenatal exam. After that, you'll likely have additional visits with your obstetrician.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
To prepare for your appointment:
For preeclampsia, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared, don't hesitate to ask questions that occur to you during your appointment.
Questions your doctor may ask include:
December 24th, 2020