Pre eclampsia is one of those things that most people have heard of, but not many people know what it is. If you’re anything like me (before I did my research) then you’ll know that it is a condition that affects pregnant women and that it can be serious, but that’s about as far as it goes.
If this condition can become a serious problem for pregnant women and their babies then it’s important to know what it involves and what to look out for.
The condition is often written down as 'pre-eclampsia'. I will be writing it as two words, 'pre eclampsia', but the two ways of writing it refer to exactly the same thing, just to avoid any confusion.
What Is Pre Eclampsia And Who Gets It?
Pre eclampsia is a condition that only develops during pregnancy. It normally occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy. It causes high blood pressure and also protein leaks from the kidneys into the urine. Other symptoms may develop if the condition becomes more serious, but these are discussed below.
It is called pre eclampsia because if it is left untreated it could lead to eclampsia. Eclampsia is a life threatening complication during pregnancy and is a type of seizure or convulsion. Most women that have pre eclampsia do not develop eclampsia.
Any woman can develop this condition during their pregnancy. Statistically 1 in 14 pregnant women develop this condition, but there are some factors that can mean you are more likely to:
1. If you are below 20 or above 35 years old.
2. If you have had pre eclampsia before.
3. If you are pregnant with twins or more.
4. If you are obese.
5. If you suffered with high blood pressure before your pregnancy.
6. If you have diabetes, systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE) or kidney disease.
7. If you are pregnant for the first time or by a new partner.
8. If you have a family history of the condition, especially in a mother or a sister.
What Causes Pre Eclampsia?
Although the cause of this condition is unknown, it is thought that the problem is with the blood vessels in the placenta not forming properly. If the condition deteriorates it does affect the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to the baby.
It is also thought that substances released from the deformed placenta can travel around the mother’s body and damage blood vessels.
It is quite clear that this condition runs in families, so the cause of it probably has some genetic implications as well.
What Are The Symptoms?
Each time you see your midwife or doctor they will check your blood pressure. This is because one of the main symptoms is high blood pressure.
At your antenatal checks your midwife will also ask for regular urine samples so that this can be checked for infection but also for high level of protein. If you have a high blood pressure combined with abnormal amounts of protein in your urine then it is very likely that you have pre eclampsia.
If the condition becomes worse then blood pressure and the amount of protein in the urine will usually increase. Other symptoms may develop as well.
1. Blurred vision
3. Pains in your tummy, usually up under your ribs
5. A general unwell feeling
6. Sudden or excessive swelling of your hands, face or feet
Swelling of your face, feet and hands due to water retention is common during pregnancy, so in most cases it doesn’t indicate a problem. But if the swelling is excessive or sudden it is best to see your midwife or doctor and get checked straight away.
What Are The Complications For Mother And Baby?
It’s important to know that most women with this condition during their pregnancy do not develop these serious complications. The worse the condition becomes, the more chance there is of complications occurring. Therefore, it is wise to get checked out straight away if you are worried that you may be developing the condition.
The possible (but uncommon) complications for the mother are:
1. Eclampsia (see above)
2. A blood clotting disorder
3. Problems with the liver, kidneys and lungs
4. A stroke
5. Severe bleeding from the placenta
6. A syndrome called ‘haemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelets’ (HELLP). This causes the blood cells to break down, affects the liver and increases the risk of serious bleeding.
The possible complications for the baby are:
1. A smaller baby due to reduced supply of oxygen and nutrients through the placenta
2. An increased risk of stillbirth
How Is Pre Eclampsia Treated?
The most effective treatment for this condition is to deliver the baby. Therefore, women with pre eclampsia fairly late on in their pregnancy (with only a few weeks to go) tend to be induced. When the baby is delivered, the placenta is delivered shortly afterward. This removes the cause of the problem and the symptoms normally improve gradually after the baby is born, either naturally or by caesarean section.
If symptoms are worsening and the baby is going to be very premature if born then it may be a tough decision to make. Various factors need to be considered such as the risk of serious complications developing, the chance of the baby being ok if born early, how badly the baby is affected by the condition.
If the condition is mild then your midwife or doctor may just monitor it by taking your blood pressure and urine samples. You may be admitted to hospital if it worsens and usually will have blood tests to monitor your liver and kidneys.
Your baby’s progress will also be monitored by ultrasound scans.
Other treatments include giving magnesium sulphate to the mother (this has proven to reduce the risk of developing eclampsia by about 50%. It is an anticonvulsant drug and is given to the mother via a drip usually during delivery of the baby), bed rest and also drugs to lower the blood pressure (this may buy the mother a bit more time before the baby has to be delivered).
While it is important to know the facts about pre eclampsia (and it’s not a pleasant subject) try not to worry yourself too much. Most women who develop this condition do not develop any of the serious complications.
Just remember, if you think you have any of the symptoms, get checked out right away. You stand much more chance of avoiding the complications if you are treated early on.
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