Pregnancy: Preeclampsia and Eclampsia

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Preeclampsia and eclampsia facts

  • Preeclampsia is a condition of during pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure (hypertension) and protein in the urine (proteinuria).
  • Preeclampsia usually occurs after the 34th week of gestation, but it can develop after birth.
  • Preeclampsia and eclampsia are most common in first-time pregnancies. Pregnant teens and women over 40 are also at increased risk.
  • Eclampsia is the development of seizures in a woman with severe preeclampsia. It has a 2% mortality (death) rate.
  • There is no cure for preeclampsia other than delivery of the baby.
  • Women with mild preeclampsia may be monitored closely to allow the baby to mature. They may be given corticosteroids to help the baby's lungs mature and magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures. Sometimes, medications to lower blood pressure are needed.
  • Fetal complications of preeclampsia include risk of preterm delivery, oligohydramnios, and slow growth.
  • Maternal complications of preeclampsia and eclampsia include liver and kidney failure, bleeding and clotting disorders, and HELLP syndrome.
  • There is no known way to prevent preeclampsia.
  • The exact cause of preeclampsia is not known, although both genetic (inherited) and environmental factors are likely to be involved.

What are preeclampsia and eclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a condition that can develop during pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure (hypertension) and protein in the urine (proteinuria). If not properly recognized and managed, preeclampsia can progress to eclampsia, which involves the development of seizures in a woman with preeclampsia. Eclampsia can be serious for both mother and baby and can even be fatal. Preeclampsia was formerly known as toxemia of pregnancy. Without treatment, it has been estimated that 1 out of 200 cases of preeclampsia progress to seizures (eclampsia). Estimates of the incidence of preeclampsia range from 2% to 6% in healthy women who have never before given birth.

Preeclampsia occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy and can even occur in the days following birth. Some reports describe preeclampsia as occurring up to 4 to 6 weeks after birth, although most cases of postpartum preeclampsia occur within 48 hours of births. Ninety percent of cases occur after the 34th week of gestation, and 5% occur after birth.

Preeclampsia and eclampsia are most common in first-time pregnancies. Pregnant teens and women over 40 are also at increased risk.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/22/2013

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Blood Pressure Guidelines

Medical Author: Benjamin C. Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

The concept of blood pressure is sometimes difficult to understand because it is usually described with numbers. However, adequate pressure within arteries is important to allow blood to be pumped throughout the body to deliver oxygen and other nutrients to areas of the body. This allows for normal metabolism and organ function.

The blood pressure recording, measures pressures within the arteries at two different times. The first reading, the systolic pressure, measures the pressure when the heart is pumping blood to the body through the arteries. The second reading, the diastolic pressure, measures the pressure within the arteries when the heart is receiving blood returning from the body.

There needs to be an underlying pressure within arterial blood vessels regardless of whether the heart is pumping or not. This intrinsic pressure is maintained by smooth muscle cells that surround all artery walls, great and small, and in effect squeeze and support the walls. Without this wall support, arteries would collapse in diastole (between each heart beat).

Blood pressure measurement is listed with two numbers with normal being less than 120/80, with 120 being the systolic blood pressure when the heart is pushing blood through the arterial system; and 80 being the diastolic blood pressure when the arteries are at rest and the heart is refilling.


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