Everything You Need to Know About Preeclampsia
Shanna Eisenbrandt, Excelsior Springs, was 27 weeks pregnant when her blood pressure began to rise and her face, hands and feet started to swell.
“I thought it might just be ‘normal’ pregnancy swelling,” Eisenbrandt says, who was also experiencing migraine-like headaches, blurred vision and extreme exhaustion.
Knowing that her diabetes and a thyroid condition put her at higher risk for preeclampsia, Eisenbrandt had been monitoring her blood pressure between her prenatal appointments. A week later, on Easter Sunday, her blood pressure shot up to around 190/110 mm Hg.
Normal blood pressure in pregnancy should be below 140/80 mm Hg.
Although she was reluctant to contact her doctor on the holiday, her husband convinced her otherwise. Alarmed, the physician on call advised her to head to the hospital immediately. She was admitted that day for preeclampsia.
“My little delusional world of ‘maybe this is going to go away’ kind of shattered then,” Eisenbrandt says.
What is preeclampsia? Preeclampsia typically occurs any time after 20 weeks gestation and, more rarely, can develop up to six weeks postpartum. Women with preeclampsia generally experience high blood pressure and protein in the urine.
Symptoms can come on suddenly and can include severe swelling, headaches, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, nausea and/or vomiting and visual disturbances.
According to Preeclampsia.org, the condition is a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death around the world.
Who gets preeclampsia? Preeclampsia affects between 5 to 8 percent of all births in the United States. Although some women are at higher risk than others due to pre-existing conditions like autoimmune disorders, obesity, diabetes or chronic high blood pressure, any pregnant woman can experience the disease.
African American women are particularly at risk for the condition and are three times more likely to die from it. No one knows exactly why, but researchers are pursuing several lines of inquiry.
“How much of this risk is due to environment? How much of it is systemic racism? And how much of it is just having a genetic predisposition?” says perinatologist Devika Maulik, MD, who treats patients at Children’s Mercy Hospital and Truman Medical Center and is an assistant professor at the UMKC School of Medicine.
What complications can occur? Patients with preeclampsia can suffer from kidney injury, liver failure, pulmonary edema, stroke and seizure.
“In very severe cases, women can develop HELLP syndrome, which is a variant of preeclampsia,” Dr. Maulik says.
HELLP, which is an acronym for Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes and Low Platelet count, is a life- threatening condition.
Preeclampsia also can cause complications for babies.
“Risks to the baby include intrauterine growth restriction, placental abruption, still birth and complications related to preterm birth,” says Rebecca Lobell, MD, Saint Luke’s Women’s Health East, Lee’s Summit.
Placenta abruption occurs when the placenta, your baby’s life support, separates from the wall of the uterus.
How do you treat preeclampsia? “The treatment for preeclampsia is delivery,” Dr. Lobell says.
Once Eisenbrandt was admitted to the hospital, her health care providers began magnesium sulfate and IV blood pressure medications. “Being on magnesium for me was like having the worst body aches you can imagine. Feeling heavy and having no real concept of time, I couldn’t focus,” Eisenbrandt says.
Although the treatment may have been difficult, research suggests that magnesium sulfate is far superior to anti-epileptic drugs in preventing seizures that can occur with preeclampsia.
When her baby’s heart rate began to drop, doctors performed an emergency c-section at 29 weeks. Weighing in at just 2 lbs., 9 oz, Eisenbrandt’s son, who is now 5 years old, spent seven weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Can you prevent preeclampsia? “Good health before pregnancy, lifestyle alterations and optimizing preexisting health conditions are the best ways for expectant moms to lower their risk of developing preeclampsia,” Dr. Lobell says.
Baby aspirin is recommended for high-risk women beginning in the second trimester, which can reduce their risk by about 24 percent.
Because the condition can strike any pregnant woman, pay attention to any unusual changes in your body.
“After what we went through, I’m a big believer in listening to your body,” Eisenbrandt says. “If you have a gut feeling that something isn’t right, you need to follow up on it.”
Dr. Maulik agrees.
“I always caution my patients that the whole point of them being my patient is that they’re supposed to ‘bother’ me. They’re supposed to tell me if something is not quite right,” she says. “Preeclampsia is one of those diseases that can get bad really quickly.”
Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines resides in Olathe with her husband and their two children, ages 11 and 13. She is the author of Confidently Connected: A Mom’s Guide to a Satisfying Social Life.
As always, please consult your health care provider with any questions or concerns.
Although rare, preeclampsia can occur after the birth of your baby.
Watch for these symptoms:
- Severe headache
- Visual disturbances
- Pain right below your ribs
- New onset of high blood pressure